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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

When What's Old Is Relative

The following five letters to the editor appeared in the May 13 issue of the New York Times. They were written in response to an essay by Pamela Druckerman, “How to Survive Your 40s,” in the May 6 issue.

What I was struck by was the age range of the letter writers—from 42 to 87--with four of the five over 50. I’m guessing there were more letters on the topic—I mean, it’s about aging, after all—and would like to think that the following more or less represent the total submitted.

Here’s a link to the original essay:

To the Editor:

In “How to Survive Your 40s” (Sunday Review, May 6), Pamela Druckerman captures the essence of being 40 with humor, acceptance and a comic sense of loss. Ask her to promise that she will write again when she’s in her 80s.

Silence on the fun of being old is nearly total, and so I weigh in. When we lose the lives we have loved, it’s time to hold the memories but find something new. I’m living in the heart of a blooming arts district, still working as a weekly movie reviewer for papers in New Jersey and Vermont and writing a memoir.

When you arm yourself with new tools that don’t require physical action, life opens again. Writing, painting, music or memoir will do it. And the best: the gift of being able to blend the rhythms of your long life with the cultural voice of each decade.

I promise Ms. Druckerman that when she’s 87, people will be calling her by her first name again, and she will be loving the perspective that only decades can bring.


To the Editor:

This is a brilliant article. I laughed and shed a tear reading it. I am turning 42 next month. I am a mom to a 9-year-old and sort of a “boss.”

I can relate to so many things Pamela Druckerman says. Visiting France is on my bucket list. I am sure that the French will call me “madame,” but I will be prepared to take it in stride :)


To the Editor:

If Pamela Druckerman thinks that it is disconcerting to be called “madame” in Paris at 40, imagine my reaction to being constantly addressed as “miss” at 87 in New Jersey.

For more than 50 years I was “ma’am,” and now everyone behaves as if he wants me to believe that he thinks that I’m 25.

The messages I’m getting are mixed: “How do you want your groceries packed, Miss? If I put more in this bag than the quart of milk and the two cans of chickpeas, it might be too heavy for you.

I suspect that the reason these grocery store clerks behave this way is that they think that I am flattered with the “miss” title. I’m not.

So Ms. Druckerman’s defensive reaction against the recognition of her age bewilders me. A woman’s 40s can be the most satisfying decade of her life, and the title “madame” is to my mind a great compliment.


To the Editor:

Do not despair, Madame. My earning power peaked at 44 until it crumbled from a corporate layoff that coincided with my having gone from being the youngest person in the room to being the oldest, like the aged-out “wunderkind” TV production company head whom Pamela Druckerman quotes in her fine eulogy for her mademoiselle years.

But after that middle-age reckoning, in my late 40s and now into my 50s, I’ve written my first book, written and directed my first film and begun teaching.

Certainly, as Ms. Druckerman notes, many of the milestones I’ve celebrated in this period have been those of my children, but I’ve also been inspired to understand how many more milestones are still possible for me to achieve.


The writer is the author of “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat,” a memoir.

To the Editor:

How to survive your 40s is for me the absolutely wrong question. More important is how you survive your 70s.

A female friend once told me that after 50 you become invisible whether you are a man or a woman.

I tested that theory once in my 50s when I interrupted a little argument at a bar in the Hamptons between a twentysomething guy and a twentysomething gal. When she walked away from the argument, I chimed in and asked the guy, “Are you really gonna let that girl get away?”

He turned to me and said, “What’s it to you, Pops?”

I was instantly cured of any fantasy that I still lived in the same world as people under 40. It became painfully clear to me that my face had indeed far outpaced my mind.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Lure of the Real

Who knows what will pop into my head while walking a tree-filled park, the trilling birds overhead? Apparently this poem by Walt Whitman.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I can’t recall when I first read the poem, maybe 30-ish years ago, but what struck me was Whitman’s need to know the world, particularly the natural world, through actual experience, beyond the symbols and words used to describe it.

I call it the Lure of the Real, a phrase that came to me one spring morning several years ago. I’d been sitting in the living room reading, when I “unaccountably” got up and went to the open window, to breathe in the sight and smell of flowers in the front garden.

But it’s not just the natural world that I need to experience; it’s the sights and sounds that surround me on my daily walks through the city; on buses, trains, and at the grocery store; at the public library where I go most days to write, and at my local bar where I go to watch night games and visit with the regulars.

As I’m wandering hither and yon, observing my surroundings, I notice all those people who are not, including those on their “devices.” And I often wonder if over time, they will become “tired and sick” of staring into them, scrolling endlessly through them, seemingly held hostage to the sheer number of symbols and words displayed on them.

I ask myself: What exactly is all that the lure of?

Then I wonder: Who's doing the asking? The Luddite or the Fogey? Either way, I don't want to miss one more moment of this very real, if ever shorter, life-o-mine. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Managing Transitions

One of the buzzwords used to describe this new old age, or longevity bonus, is “unretirement.” Another is “reinvention.” Together they equal figuring out who you want to be and what you want to do after you retire. And however you define that in your own life, it generally means moving on from, or beyond, years of full-time employment.

“Defining retirement: What will that transition look like for you?” addresses that issue in Primetime, an advertising section of the Chicago Tribune (February 16, 2018).

Several parts of the article caught my attention:

[P]anning to “do nothing” in retirement is not the best idea according to retirees like Jim Young and others. The Aurora resident was presented with an attractive package to retire early at 58.

“I saw it as a chance to return to art”….He [also]tried teaching but didn’t connect well with it….“I enjoy the art most of all but I am always open to trying other things,” says Young who has enjoyed retirement. By striving to define retired life, Young has rekindled old passion and found new interests.

What stands out for me in Young’s experience of retirement is that he tried more than one thing—and is planning to try others—knowing that it is up to him to create this part of his life.

 “Retirement is a major milestone in life and comes with a lot of emotions,” says Dr. Aimee Harris-Newon, a licensed clinical psychologist with a post-graduate concentration on functional health and wellness….“Just like buying a home, starting a family or sending your children off to college, retirement is a time of transition in life.”

Life is filled with transitions, of course, but many people over 50 may just be getting used to their post-work years as being one of them. And that’s why figuring out what to do with this time can be both exciting and a bit daunting.

Harris-Newon says there is often a “honeymoon period for about a year after retirement” where fun and leisure is fulfilling. But at some point, “it is important to find a purpose and meaning to your life….Find a way to bring your values and talents into the arena. People want to be needed. When there is no sense of purpose in life, depression, anxiety and health issues can develop.”

For me, finding purpose means finding meaning in our lives. That’s what makes us human, I believe, and draws us into those communities where our purpose finds expression.

And one final suggestion from the article for dealing with this transition: “Each person’s definition of retirement is so different that it is important to start a journal of retirement goals.”

OK, then, if keeping a journal during this time in your life sounds like a good idea, please consider signing up for my latest journal writing workshop at the Newberry Library: "The Purpose of Aging, Aging with Purpose." It's a 4-part series that runs Saturdays, June 16 - July 7, from 1 - 3 pm. 

For more information and to register at the reduced fee through May 4, click here:

And to read more of the Primetime article:

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Upside of To-Do Lists

I arrive each morning at Starbucks with a small memo book in hand. Then, while drinking my grande half-caf, I read three daily newspapers and jot down the titles of books to read and stuff to write about. If a workshop is looming, my reading may inspire new writing exercises, which also go in the memo book.

Those two or three or four pages of notes then lead to what I plan to do that day, including people to contact, ball games to watch or listen to, and what to pick up at my favorite Mexican market. That all goes in the book, too.

And so begins the day’s to-do list.

I’m not sure how many decades ago I started each day with a to-do list, though it became an indispensible practice once I started teaching college writing in the mid-‘80s. There was no way I was going to enter a classroom without an agenda or to-do list, my set of goals for the next 50 minutes.

Whatever you call them, agendas or to-do lists anchor me. They give me safe crossing through the day, providing the illusion that I am in control of what’s going to happen. So if getting mugged or run over by an SUV or spilling coffee all over myself isn’t on that list, it won’t happen. Right?

This all came to mind while reading “Baby Boomers Reach the End of Their To-Do List,” by Patricia Hampl.* It was published in the New York Times on April 15, and, of course, duly noted in my indispensible memo book.

In the piece, Hampl contrasts striving—as epitomized by to-do lists—with serenity, though for me it’s the list that leads to serenity: I make the day’s goals, I achieve them, I am serene. And should I not reach one of those goals? Easy, it goes on the next day’s to-do list.

Then nearing the end of her essay, Hampl quotes one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman, as an example of how we can do the opposite of striving:

Waste the day. That’s what that great American lounger Whitman did. “I loaf and invite my soul,” he wrote. “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”

But here’s what I think: Whitman wrote that after hours, maybe days, spent reading, walking, keenly observing the world around him, probably taking notes, and then writing.

And re-writing. 

Whitman simply offered the illusion that the loafing and the idle observing spilled out effortlessly onto the page. The opposite is true, of course. Though he entered the creative chaos of writing not knowing where it would lead him, once there he was in precise control of words and sentences that have lasted over one hundred years.

Control, illusion, and creative chaos: They all begin with my to-do list.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Beginning Again, Again.

Back in 1985, 42 was considered on the old side, especially as a recently admitted graduate student. Not only didn’t I know much about my major—English Lit—but most of my fellow students were half my age. Plus, there was over 15 years separating my B.A. in psychology from this latest academic adventure.

Of course, I’ve written about the whole experience of earning a master’s degree at 45 years old, even read my piece, “Happy Accident,” at a live lit event in 2015. In truth, those three years of reading and writing were among the happiest of my life; they also set me on a path that I still travel today: writer and teacher.

All of which I thought about when reading Anne Rudig’s opinion piece in the March 12 issue of the New York Times: “Back in School, at 64.”

I’ve selected out portions of her essay that especially resonated with me, including how I quit my job to return to school; how much I respected my professors, a good number of them younger than I; what I learned from sharing a classroom with all those twenty-somethings; and, finally, how my studies, as Rudig so aptly put it, “enriched [me] beyond measure.

Here are the excerpts, with the link to the whole article following. I hope that both her story and mine encourage you to take a similar journey. No time like the present to begin, eh?

I was 64 when I entered graduate school. I had just left the work force — not retired, just tired. Tired of hitting the glass ceiling and of policies that failed to protect employees from abuse. As disenchantment with my job grew, writing became a healthy distraction.

I sat in workshops and seminars during my first semester at Columbia, ashamed of my age and surrounded by brilliant young people.

Some of my instructors were close in age to me, winners of Pulitzers with decades of writing and publishing experience. Some were just a little older than my children. I wondered, was it too late for me to do this?

Despite the age difference, [the students and I have] fed one another in many ways — emotionally, intellectually and literally (I’ve brought tomatoes from my garden, while another student brought freshly baked bread).

I’ve been warned by my professors that a degree in writing is unlikely to bring riches. That’s okay. I’ve been enriched beyond measure.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

To Do Good Do More With Less

It may have been sometime in the early ‘90s that I heard Molly Ivins speak at a local indie bookstore. She was on tour to promote her book, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? I recall that the place was packed.

Ivins was a journalist and author from Texas and just a year younger than I. In both her writing and speaking, she was witty, politically astute, and unafraid to speak truth to power. 

After her talk, most of the Q&A likely focused on her book, and maybe a bit on Texas politics. But at some point, I remember her offering up her advice for what it takes to lead a satisfying life.

And though my memories from that long-ago book event might be a bit fuzzy, I’ve never forgotten that advice: Do good, have fun, learn something. Nice and concise, though broad. I have a feeling she practiced what she preached up until her death—too, too young—at 62 in 2007.

I think of those three approaches to life more and more these days, especially as those days are dwindling: Am I doing good? Having fun? Learning something? This day or the next? And, how, exactly am I doing each?

Lately, I find myself fixated on the “having fun” part, especially on planning to have fun. Sure, it’s pretty easy for me to have spontaneous fun—while writing, teaching my workshops, riding the train, petting the neighborhood dogs or schmoozing with the baristas at Starbucks.

But I also want to schedule in fun, writing down in my calendar then holding myself accountable to particular fun events. I also need to more precisely define what I think a fun event might be.

Last week, it was going to see Wes Anderson’s ”Isle of Dogs,” a pretty fun movie. Before that, it was watching the Loyola Ramblers in the NCAA tournament at my local bar, which also serves as a venue for spontaneous fun.

Then there’s choir practice and singing at mass. I always have fun doing that, partly because making music always puts a bounce in my step, and mostly because my fellow singers are themselves awfully fun.

OK, so I’m hardly experiencing a fun deficit, but there’s always room for more. Which means given the ticking clock that I’ll have to learn to do more with less. Sounds like a warm, sunny day at a baseball game with a couple of beers, Knuckle Balls, and an Affy Tapple Caramel Apple might just do the trick.