Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Turning 50: Fat wrists and all, I'm glad to be here

Fifty. The age of doddering great-aunts.  The age when people once seemed to me too old to be relevant, too old to have their ideas considered.

In less than two weeks, I – I! – will be that age.  And like most people who reach an age such as this, I have no idea how I got here.

I’m not upset about the number.  I am mesmerized by it.


However a person "should" feel at 50, I don’t.  As the song “Fifteen” by Five for Fighting puts it, I’m 15 for a moment.  I’m 22 for a moment, then 33.  I was just 45.  And all too soon, I’ll be 99.  In all likelihood, I am on the downhill side of the whole deal, and that fact gives me pause.  But I can’t say it makes me panic.  As I do with most things, I’ve decided instead to over-analyze it.  And the closest I’ve come to a conclusion is this:

I am planning to rock 50. I feel I’ve pretty much rocked 49, and I don’t foresee any changes.

Let me explain. I sure won’t  rock 50 physically; I’m not running any marathons.  But I’m doing all right.  I walk each and every day, rain or shine, and thanks to a couple of really expensive prosthetics, my joints work better than they have in two decades.   My diet still needs work – for the first time in my life, my wrists are fat! -- but I’m making an effort.  I take a low-dose aspirin every day and hope it wards away evil spirits.

And although I may have more skin to contend with, I’m more comfortable than ever inside it.  After all these years, I know how to dress my no-waisted, round-shouldered body. I can’t afford cosmetic surgery, and I'm pretty sure I don't want it anyway, so I buy good bras. I’m not ready for my gray hair yet, so I do the best I can to keep it covered. I delight in every benign pathology report and every clear body scan.

I also delight in the fact that my arthritis hasn’t spread to my hands.  I can still type. 

I’m  happiest that I no longer care at all about trying to be beautiful, but the comfort I’m feeling isn’t all physical.  Not by a long shot.  Like many families, mine incurred some early and pretty major loss, and I coped by diving inward. I can see now, though, how that actually worked to my benefit.  As a child, I spent a lot of time alone with words, exposing myself to their variety and fluidity and cadences. Words became my blanket and my comfort and my home. Later on, they became my confidence.

I can’t do math.  I can’t cook very well.  But I can speak my words, and I can write them, and now that I’m almost 50, I don’t shy away from using them to communicate exactly what I want to. That is the greatest gift I see in being the age I am.

I’m also grateful that I’ve learned from my mistakes, and that I’ve learned there’s no disgrace in saying, “I was wrong; I’m sorry.”  And I’m trying hard to learn that guilt is useless, and that my faith assures me forgiveness for the many times I’ve acted too impulsively and spoken too strongly. I’ve also learned that people can change, but only if they want to … and if they don’t think they’re wrong in the first place, they’re not going to alter anything.  And I’ve learned other people’s untruths are not mine to expose, and that sometimes it’s OK to sit back, take a deep breath, and embrace the silence.

I’ve learned that parenting never stops, and that there’s no room for selfishness in it. I know that the adage “happy parents, happy children” isn’t always true, and that sometimes, adults have to live with the fact that our needs may not always be met, but that our children’s must be.  And I derive immense joy from having raised kids who think.

At almost 50, I’ve learned that the airplane and the Internet are the two greatest inventions in the history of the world.  And after taking my first trip to Europe this year, I absolutely see the value in going back as soon as I can, and taking more of the people I love with me.

I’ve also come to realize that it’s my job, as I grow older, to document history before it disappears.  My parents were part of the first generations of their families that were born in this country; I’m only once removed from my the poverty my grandparents traveled across the world to escape.  I can't allow the stories of those brave and proud people to lose their relevance.

So far, I’ve lasted eight more years that my mother was given; I like to think she’s proud of the way I’ve used them, and the way I’ll use any remaining ones.  I also like to think that in the next decade, I’ll become a grandmother.  My husband and others who have experienced that milestone say the simple joy of it will bring me to my knees.

All the nonsense about “50 is the new 30” doesn’t sway me; I look at my face and remember my experiences and know that, yes, the years have passed, and to some degree, they’ve taken their toll.  But they’ve also allowed me to understand that time is truly a gift, and it’s one I’ll accept with gratitude and reverence.    

Fifty. It is, as they say, better than the alternative.  But in reality, it’s so much more.  Fat wrists and all, I’m happy to be here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Perhaps my grandchildren will eat prawns...

So in the middle of a pleasant lunch the other day, my son said, “Cory and Kat and I have been talking about moving to Liverpool.”

He said it the same way he might have mentioned, “We’re thinking of moving to Marshalltown,” or “Cory and I took the dogs disc-golfing.”   In his mind, it seemed to be a statement that might merit an “Oh, really?” but certainly nothing more worthy of emotion.

It’s long been a fact in our family that I’d prefer the children move no farther than the end of the block; my dream would be that my grandchildren would be able to run a few houses down the street to challenge me to an after-school game of Scrabble or split a pack of Swiss cake rolls.

But given that we all know my fantasy is just that, my wise son decided to take a different tack: He’d throw out a place he knows I Iove with the hope that I’d be too overcome with possibility to begin whining. This time, it may have worked.

We visited England in May and Liverpool was my favorite city, hands-down – a wonderful mix of centuries-old cathedrals, contemporary street art, interactive museums and such curiosities as Ringo Starr’s old house. I’ve said many times that I’d love to go back and stay a while. So what better way to sway me, my son reasoned, than to ply me with the promise of a vacation home?

“Once we find good jobs and start making money, we’ll get a nice place,” he said. “And you can come and stay, like, a month. You can even come and retire there.”

Retiring there probably won’t work – first, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be able to afford to retire. And second, there’s the matter of my other child, who might (fingers crossed) actually decide to stay close to home (alas, most likely not down the street). And then there's my husband. And my extended family. 
But a month’s vacation in Liverpool each year – that, I could handle. Wandering the streets eating scones and those savory little pies. Visiting the Beatles museum as often as I’d like. Watching the ferries chug out across the Mersey afer being filled with goods by guys who sound like the cartoon characters in the Dire Straits "Money for Nothing" video. Touring cathedrals. Reading to grandchildren who will have delightful little accents and wear knee-high stockings and eat prawns. 

Traveling to Liverpool wouldn’t be cheap, but there are great deals to be had online. And if you book way in advance, it’s even cheaper. And how great would it be to spend Christmas in England? We could take the whole family, and … on and on and on ...

In all reality, though, even with college degrees, succeeding in another country won’t be easy for the kids; first of all, England is expensive. Second, Scott has no idea what he wants to do with his freshly minted sheepskins. Third, did I mention that England is expensive?

And fourth, I don't want my kids to move away. I'll never, ever want that.

But I totally understand why the idea of a new beginning in a fascinating place is attractive to Scott ... he has always had a bit of wanderlust as well as an innate curiosity about the rest of the world. As Kat is from South Africa, so England would be a nice geographical compromise for the two of them.

And it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: The world is much smaller than it used to be. When I moved two and a half hours east after college graduation, my homesickness – in a time of expensive long-distance phone calls – knew no bounds. When Scott studied near London two years ago, we Skyped several times a week.

So … could it be that my Italian-mother stranglehold is weakening?  Or am I simply softening in my old age?

Probably the latter. It’s taken me about 7,500 years, but I’m warming to the fact that things won’t always go my way. My kids are 24 and 21; they’re talented and kind and generous and wonderful, and they deserve to chase their own dreams. And in the overall scheme of things, everything does tend to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Plus, nothing can quite seal a deal like the promise of grandkids who look and sound like Harry, Ron and Hermione. See you across the pond, mates.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

With apologies to Letterman, here's my Thankfulness Top 10.

As I read all the "Days of Thankfulness" posts on Facebook, I'm sorry I didn't jump on the train soon enough. What's better than seeing family members and friends profess the things for which they're grateful? But it's Day Five now, and I'm behind the eight ball. So I'm going to combine all my thankfulness into this post. Hope I can do it justice.

1. I'm thankful, first, for health -- my own health and the health of my husband, children, stepchildren, extended family members and pets. Truly, if you have your health, anything is possible. So many people I know are dealing with serious health issues right now, and they are my heroes.

2. I'm thankful for my upbringing -- not only that I was raised to believe in the adage "to whom much is given, much is expected," but also because I was raised not to see color, religion or class. In a political age in which a photograph is circulating that advises "put(ting) the white back in the White House," I'm grateful that I was taught to embrace and learn from people of all colors and faiths. I also was taught that in our family business, the individuals running the machines were the ones I should bow down to, as they made it possible for me to live a comfortable life. I also learned, and saw in action, that those people deserved to be compensated well for the skills they possessed.

3. I am thankful for my husbands.  I am thankful to the first one because he's a good man with whom I became a parent. I am thankful to the current -- and last -- one because he, too, is a good man, and he makes me laugh harder than anyone ever has. He accepts me wholeheartedly, flaws and all, and he's also proud of my accomplishments and my passions, even when he secretly wishes I would watch something other than CNN or MSNBC. He's a loyal and diligent employee and a fair, caring manager. He gives his whole heart to his children and his grandchild. He loves and is grateful to and worries about his mother.  If he stops smoking, he'll be just about perfect.

4.  I am not only thankful for my children; I am in awe of them. Scott taught me to be a parent and continues to teach me; he graduated with two liberal-arts degrees and wants to make the world a better place, but he's not sure quite how he'll make that happen. He works on his music and his writing and supports himself by working in a restaurant -- I love that his Facebook profile lists his occupation as "poet at Hickory Park."  He's poor, but he's noble and satisfied. Caroline has been driven since she entered the world; she is a force to be reckoned with, and a marvel to behold. How many college seniors have jobs in their fields before they graduate? She does, and performs the work of at least a half-dozen other people in her off hours. She succeeds at everything she does -- yet she's a great champion for those who aren't quite as successful.  My children are compassionate, loving and forgiving. I am fortunate indeed.

5. I am thankful for my extended family. I was shaped by Teresa, who is my sister but essentially became my mother after we lost ours, and to her husband, Jon, who became another father to me.  He was the one who told me I could do anything, and I always knew he really believed that. Together, they gave me siblings to argue with, share experiences with, and love. I am thankful for Jon's parents, who were the only grandparents I really knew. I am thankful for my nephew Aidan, whose perseverance reminds me every day to try a little harder. And I am thankful for my late parents -- my mom, whose legacy taught me to love books and be a leader, and my dad, who taught me to work hard and speak my mind. Helping to care for him as he was dying was one of the defining experiences of my life. Finally, I am thankful for my former in-laws, whose generosity extends above and beyond a level anyone would expect.

6. I am thankful for the ability to learn from my mistakes. And believe me, there have been a couple of doozies. How grateful I am that they will never be repeated.

7. I am thankful that I am satisfied with enough. I will never be wealthy, but I have a warm house, plenty to eat, a car that (mostly) runs, and a good job that affords me plenty of opportunity. I am thankful that when it comes to material things, as long as I can fulfill my obligations and help my kids, that's really all I need.

8. I am thankful for my faith. I'm pretty quiet about it, but it's there, and it sustains me. I know that as I go about my business, I'm not alone. The writer Anne Lamott says it best: You can pray all the time, because it's easy. You just need to say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." And I do.

9. I am thankful for the ability to express myself in writing. I am grateful for the editors and publishers who have taken chances on me over the years, and for the people who take the time to read the things I write. I'm also thankful for the writers who make it look so easy (that would be you, Jane Burns, Dan Finney, Michael Wellman, Sara Judson Brown, and so many others). I learn from you every day.

10. I am thankful for my birthday: In a couple of weeks, I'll be 50. Fifty! My mom never made it this far; neither did so many individuals who deserved these years more than I do. When I say the number out loud, it's not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. With any luck, the next decade will be the one in which I become a grandparent. No matter what happens, I'll have adventures, and I'll learn from them.

I'm thankful for so many other things -- fresh-squeezed orange juice from Hy-Vee. Crock pots.  Oreos.  Diet Mountain Dew, which really does taste almost as good as the real stuff. My dog. The ability to walk without pain.  And on and on.

As Thanksgiving grows closer, I wish you many, many things for which to be thankful, and for wide-open eyes to recognize those gifts and wide-open hearts to appreciate them. Think about it: What would be on your list?

Friday, November 2, 2012

I wish I could cook like Paula Deen, but I don't want her hair.

Yep, this is me, ready to tackle my roots.

I’m old, but I’m not old enough to be contemplating what I’m contemplating.  And I’m not seriously contemplating it, but I’m absolutely in need of some options.
I’m not yet 50, and I’m gray. Not just “Oh, look, a gray hair – want me to pluck it?” gray.  Under these L’Oreal Dark Golden Brown roots, I’m Paula Deen.
How did this happen? Heredity. The women in my family all have lost their pigment early; I noticed my first patch of gray at 27, when I was pregnant with Caroline. I was coloring a skunk stripe at 29. Now, two decades later, I’m touching up snow-white roots every two weeks.
I’ve tried various means of disguising the issue. I went blonde several years ago – a good theory (the light hair would make the outgrowth not quite so heinous), but a bad, bad idea. My eyebrows are dark, my complexion is olive-ish, and I ended up looking cheap and sort of unfinished, like an Instagram photo on the Walden setting -- interesting in an unsettling way, but just not right.
So I returned my strands to their birth color and started paying a very nice woman too much money every six weeks to touch up my roots. Now I’m coloring them myself for the most part and seeing her every couple of months to tune everything up – I’m sorry, but I refuse to hand over the equivalent of a small car payment to a professional when the gray at my temples pops out every two weeks no matter what brand of color tries to keep it in check.
I’m at a loss. I’m tired of trying to keep up the color; it’s messy and gross and I never get everything covered. But paying $160 twice a month to maintain my hair just isn’t going to happen.
I know two people who have given up. Each was about my age when she threw in the towel, and each is a lovely woman. One looks like Sheena Easton – lovely with high cheekbones, delicate features and a pixie haircut – and she would look good bald, so the shock of white hair on her perky little head works just fine.  The other woman looks a bit more like the rest of us, and even though she remains attractive, she looks a good 10 years older.  I’m not ready for that.
How shallow, you say as you shake your head. I know, and I agree with you – after all, I’m a feminist who has concentrated on “pretty on the inside” for a very long time now. But I still like to look good, and it’s becoming more and more difficult as the waist thickens and jowls form and I need a bra with about 16 hooks in the back. My hair has always been thick and wavy and able to do all kinds of things; it used to be  a “go-to” feature when I really cared about looking nice.
It still is thick and wavy, but good God, it’s white. To see how that changes things, Google a recent picture of the singer Grace Slick. The woman is, and always has been, gorgeous. But now she looks less like a seductress and more a lunch lady. (Not that being  a lunch lady is bad. But you know what I mean.) 
“Let it go gray,” Kevin says. Then I ask him if he realizes that will make me look like his mom, and he stops talking.
Is anyone else in this predicament? Have you resigned yourself to a lifetime of ridiculous salon charges? Have you gone the do-it-yourself route?  Or are you embracing your glorious, white-haired self?  I’m at a crossroads, and I really do want to know.