Don’t Hate Me For Being Old, But Don’t Love Me For It, Either

old woman BandWI’ve written before about being old, not because I’m proud of it or sad about it or wanting to exploit my age when all else fails (okay, I may have done that), but whenever I do it I feel the need to apologize for even bringing it up.  Talking about old age is boring.  It may be more boring than any other subject I know, except maybe that talk about having to walk a mile to school in a snowstorm.  Without boots.  Or a hat.

Aging is something that happens without our permission.  No matter what those ads say, it is permanent, irrevocable and out of our control.  In my case, aging doesn’t change who I am or alter the fact that I really, truly believe I’ll live forever.  Crinkly skin and creaking bones aside, I’m doing okay.

But  here I am, talking about it again.

I’ve been having trouble with one knee lately, so I’m using a walking stick.  That damned stick has changed everything!  Suddenly, people are all over me, wanting to help.  They lean into me (in case I’m hard of hearing, too), and use their best Kindergarten voices to let me know they’re there and they’re ready to help.

My god, I’m in Hell.

Sometimes I do need help.  Don’t we all?  But it’s not because I’m old, it’s because help is what I need.

Something else has happened:  Now, suddenly, because I walk with a stick and look the way I do, I am no longer capable of helping anyone else.  Those days are over, either permanently or until I can throw away the crutch, dye the gray away, get Botox treatments, remove those eye bags, pull that chicken neck tighter, suck in that gut, and lift those useless, drooping boobs. (Can somebody please tell me why boobs keep growing as we age?  Don’t we have enough trouble staying upright?)

I can still walk a mile (though much slower and not in your shoes), troubleshoot my own and my daughters’ laptops, drive across the state without being afraid of flashing blue lights behind me, and virtually, though not literally, kick ass when certain politicians get out of line.

I can still laugh and joke and at least seem like I know what I’m talking about. I used to be pretty good at Trivial Pursuit,but now the answers seem to have to struggle through the tangles of my brain.  (I hear their teeny-tiny voices saying, “Wait!  I’m coming!” so I know they’re on their way.)  But, since Trivial Pursuit isn’t my life’s calling,  I’m okay with it.  I’ll manage.

So please let me help when I offer to help.  It may take me a little longer to get the thing done but I promise I won’t offer to do more than I’m able.

Do me a favor:  Do not smile and coo and throw roses my way because I’m old.  My age doesn’t require congratulations.  It’s the least of who I am.  And, for god’s sake, stop asking me how I’m feeling.  I feel like steaming horse dung some days but I felt dungish some days when I was young, too.

In fact, do me another favor:  Ignore everything I’ve said here.  Pretend we never had this conversation.

I’m really not myself today.

 

(Also published at The Broad Side, my favorite feminist website)

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Regrets? I’ve Had a Few

Ask any celebrity if they have regrets and 99.9% of them will say no.  Some of them are people who should be waking up every morning regretting everything they’ve done since puberty, but ask them that question and it’s as if you were asking them if the moon is made of Gorgonzola.  No hesitation.  No dramatic stroking of the chin.  No searching the ceiling for answers.  Nope.  Just no.

They do it, we all know, not because they’re regret-free but because saying no is easier than having to categorize every foible, flaw, or folly in order to satisfy complete strangers asking dumb questions.

But here I am, a non-celebrity, asking that same question of myself.  Why?  Because I just read an old interview with David Brown, in which he seemed to be regretting a whole lot of things he had done or not done, but when he was asked specifically if he had any regrets, he said, “I don’t think in those terms.  I think most creative people don’t think about their failures.  They think the public is wrong.”

Okay, he retracted that a bit, probably regretting he’d answered so fast, probably remembering his answer would be in print for posterity.  So when the interviewer asked Brown if he thought that, he said, “Probably not as much as most people.  Actually, I usually think the public is right, that the public knows.”

There.  Done. No regrets.

But since I’m feeling creative at least some of the time,  it got me to thinking about my own answers if I were ever to become famous enough to be asked.  (First regret coming to mind:  I regret that I never became famous.)

I took a little time with this, knowing you would want the truth, and while I was taking my time I realized that most of my regrets include things I’ve never had control over.

I regret not having been born beautiful, rich, tall, smart, clever or wise.

I regret not having been born in a tropical paradise.

I regret having been born in the 1930s when being born in the 1980s would make me so much younger now.

I regret not having a voice made in heaven.

I regret my two left feet.

I regret I have but one life to live.

regret

Now for the things I did have control over:

I regret I never learned to swim.  It looks like fun.

I regret letting my love for sugar and fat overcome my need for arugula. (That’s a thing, right?)  .

I regret I ever sat through “Sideways” and “Lost in Translation”.

(I regret that you hate me right now for being honest.)

I regret that time I. . .

But enough about me.  The interview with David Brown came from a book called, Creativity:  Conversations with 28 Who Excel.  It was published in 1993  and is now out of print, but if you can find it, you’ll find some great interviews with creative creatures like Gloria Steinem, Morgan Freeman, Tony Bennett, Elmore Leonard, Ntozake Shange, Al Hershfeld, and a host of others from stage, screen, the arts, and business.  It’s a grand mix put together, it turns out, by an ad agency.

DMB&B, an advertising agency in Bloomfield Hills, MI, did a series of talks with 28 creative people from all fields, all genres, to take a look at what makes creative people tick.  That question about regrets came up a few times.  None of the interviewees wanted to admit to having any.  (Oh.  I see.  It jinxes things.  And it hurts to admit it, besides.  I regret I didn’t get that until right now.)

But Tony Bennett’s answer was by far the most creative:  After a Pavarotti concert, Bennett said he regretted not running up on the stage to look into the great tenor’s throat to see how he did that.    It made me think of yet another regret:  I regret I didn’t keep up my singing lessons so that some time in the future I might have made an album with The Great Tony Bennett.

I regret that a lot.

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Looking For Lydia’s Babies

My grandmother, Lydia–my mother’s mother–had two babies out of wedlock before my mother and her three siblings were born.  I didn’t find this out until they were all long gone.  I’ll never know if my own mother knew this and kept it secret, or if she was as clueless about it as I was.  Or as my cousins/sisters were.  (There are three of us, born of Lydia’s three daughters, and we’re more like sisters than cousins.)

I was up in Michigan’s Copper Country researching a book I was working on (but never completed, in case you’re wondering), when my great-aunt, one of only two living relatives left up there, dropped the bomb about the babies my grandmother had lost.  It was out before she could stop it and she thought she had said enough, but I reminded her that anything she told me then was beyond hurting anyone.

Women in those days had miscarriages all the time, but these babies lived beyond infancy. They had names.  They had the same father, a man who was not my grandfather.

My grandmother was young and unmarried and was raising them while living with her parents.  They lived in a small town with its share of small town gossips.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, keeping and loving not one but two illegitimate children, and then losing them both to a scourge my great-aunt only remembered as “awful diarrhea”.   She didn’t remember the children but my great-uncle told her after they were married that he played with them often and was heartbroken when they died, one after the other.

I went to the county courthouse to look for their records and, in spite of the efforts of a kindly clerk, only found one.  The father’s name was right there but nobody I talked to knew who he was.

The cemetery where they were buried is old and grown over and the burial records were lost in a fire a half-century before I began looking.  Their markers would have been made of wood and were long gone, if they ever existed.

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Myrtle carpet at old cemetery

My grandmother was loving and funny as all get out.  She sang and made jokes and told us stories–but never about herself.  If we asked, her stock answer was, “Oh, nobody wants to know about that old business.”  We didn’t push it, and now we wish we had.

I drove the 600 miles back home alone and along the way a poem wrote itself.  Here it is:

Looking for Lydia’s Babies

There were six of them, not four, and I was told this
in the year she would have been one hundred.

The teller gave the news in muffled blasts
Wrought from years of keeping this thing quiet.

The two who came before the ones we thought were first
Were shadow babies born before their mother wore a ring.

They lived beyond the infant stage; the teller knew their names
But how they lived and when they died she could not say.
She only knew that they were mourned.

A boy and girl, but who came first? Only Hugo had a life
According to the courthouse records.
He even had a father.

But Esther, loyal Esther, kept her secrets
While her mother held us close and whispered hope
And never told us that two more had come before.

Their mother could have passed this chunk of history on.
We begged for hints of just what kind of girl she was.
And all she did was sing another song.

Maybe all we wanted was for her to laugh, to sing,
To check our fears
And rock us on her ample lap.

Maybe even, summers, when we helped her bake and scrub
She opened doors that we ignored
Or didn’t want to see beyond.

But later we were modern women, guilty of our own transgressions,
Reeling with our own confessions.
Open to the story of those babies.

And still our grandma could not speak of children left behind
In unmarked graves, asleep beneath their quilts of creeping myrtle,
Waiting for their kin to call their names.

_____________________________

Thank you to The Broad Side for reprinting this blog.

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It’s Snowing In June–Again

Every year around this time the trees we commonly refer to as Cottonwoods (but are, in fact, their close cousin Balm of Gilead, according to my “Trees of Michigan” book) send warnings of a cotton storm a’brewing by wafting tiny cotton flakes into the air.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAFor days we see the cotton building up on the upper branches, knowing that one day when the sun warms the branches enough and the Gods are in their places the “snow” will begin to fly.

This year it started three days ago but then the rains came, stalling the cotton storm for at least a little while.  I would say that’s a good thing, but it really just prolongs the inevitable.  Those cotton bombs are growing bigger and bigger up there and either tomorrow or the next day our side yard is once again going to look like this:

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This is a close-up of the cotton ball once it has “exploded”:

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Early in the spring the “cotton” seeds form and start to fall.  They’re covered with an incredibly sticky resin and manage to stick to everything, especially the bottoms of our shoes.  They end up inside the house, where we have to literally scrape them up off the floor.  What a nuisance!

But I’ve been doing a little research, and it turns out those sticky little buggers are good for something.  They can be made into a salve.  A balm.  A Balm of Gilead.  The people who are onto this balm claim it has magical, out-of-this-world qualities.  It is a pain reliever, an antibiotic, an anti-itch, anti-inflammatory miracle worker, and, if some others are to be believed, a sure-fire cure for cancer called “black salve”.

I found this recipe online, and I can’t wait to try making it when it gets cold again and I can gather up those little sticky slivers.  Olive oil and beeswax are the main ingredients, and it looks simple enough for even me.

The tree is also called “balsam poplar”.  They talk about the pleasant aroma, but I can’t say I’ve actually noticed.  I’ll have to pay attention.

(Oh, by the way, I started this blog yesterday, and today was the day.  Our yard looks just like the picture above.  I almost took another picture, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.  One snowy yard in June looks like any other.)

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William Zinsser: Writing Well is the Best Legacy

Zinsser On Writing WellI came to what I call professional writing fairly late.  I didn’t take it seriously until my real life eased enough for me to give some attention to what I might want to do with the rest of my days.

After dabbling in every artistic expression of my day–needlework, crochet, macrame, pottery, ceramics, drawing in charcoal and pastels, painting in oils, acrylics, and watercolor–none of which I did well, I finally realized that my early love, writing, was the creative outlet I had been looking for all along.

I joined a local writing group and there I found William Zinsser, their anointed guru.  They couldn’t stop talking about his book, “On Writing Well”.  It was their bible and I, more interested in hamper-free, no-rules writing, was having none of it.  I didn’t want to be told how to write, I wanted to be told I wrote well, even when I didn’t.  That was the whole point of joining a writing group.  Or so I thought at the time.

Zinsser, when I finally opened up to him, taught me otherwise.  Good writing takes skill.  There is no easy way to acquire it and the sooner the novice realizes it, the easier it is to look at the beginnings as school–lessons, grades, apprenticeships.  And then you go to work, where you find that you don’t know everything after all, and that, as in any other profession, the learning never stops.

I’m still a dummy when it comes to grammar and sentence structure.  I’m always imagining the “Oh, God, no” reactions from the more knowledgeable people who take on the task of reading what I write.  I don’t always get it–what can I say?  But William Zinsser gave me the reasons to write. Yes, he was a stickler for grammar and sentence structure, but his main focus was not so much on doing it right as on doing it well.

In honor of his life and skills, in sadness at his passing, here are a few passages from “On Writing Well” (Fifth Edition):

Trust your material if it’s taking you into unknown terrain you didn’t intend to enter but the vibrations are good.  Adjust your style and your mood accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach.  Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan.  Writing is no respecter of blueprints–it’s too subjective a process, too full of surprises.

Writing is hard work.  A clear sentence is no accident.  Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.  Remember this in moments of despair.  If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things people do.

The good writer of prose must be part poet, always listening to what he writes.  E.B White continues to be my favorite stylist because I’m conscious of being with a man who cares about the cadences and sonorities of the language.  I relish (in my ear) the pattern his words make as they fall into a sentence.  I try to surmise how in rewriting the sentence he reassembled it to the end with a phrase that will momentarily linger, or how he chose one word over another because he was after a certain emotional weight.  It’s the difference between say, “serene” and “tranquil”–one so soft, the other strangely disturbing because of the unusual n and q.

Writing is not a contest.  Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everyone else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.

Decide what you want to do.  Then decide to do it.  Then do it.

Mr. Zinsser, I wish I had said this before, but you’ll understand if I feel the need to say it now.

Thank you.  It didn’t always take (living proof), but you gave it your best.  You never stopped trying.  And that’s what counts.

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Yes, Virginia, There Are Unicorn Hunters

There is a real Unicorn Hunters Society in the United States, in case you hadn’t heard.  It was formed in 1971, even though, as you know, unicorns have been around forever.  The society is based at Lake Superior State University (hereafter known as LSSU) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (pronounced “soo saint Marie, hereafter known as The Soo).

The Soo is at the northern terminus of I-75, just beyond the 46th parallel, an hour north of where I live most of the year.   Up in the north woods hunting is a traditional activity, but until unicorn hunting was established only certain of us believed they existed.  The Unicorn Hunters Society, knowing what chaos would ensue once word got out about the mythical creatures’ activities, wisely set up a list of regulations.

From their Unicorn Quest list:

  • BAG LIMITS:
    1. Only one Unicorn per month. A success ratio higher than this often results in a form of euphoria, which of course requires a mental truss. This is highly undesirable.
    2. Female unicorns may not be taken. Since no one has ever sighted a female unicorn it is believed that males reproduce asexually.
  • TERM OF SEASON. All days of the year except St. Agnes’ Eve. This exception is to protect hares who limp trembling through frozen grass from being trampled by running unicorns. Bow and arrow season is Oct. 1 – Nov. 14, then Dec. 1 – Jan. 1.
  • APPROVED QUESTING DEVICES. Unicorns may be taken with:
    1. Serious Intent
    2. Iambic Pentameter
    3. General levity
    4. Sweet talk

(See complete list of regulations here.  Download a Unicorn Quest license here.)

The society was founded by W.T (Bill) Rabe,  a Public Relations mischief-maker from Detroit who later became the resourceful PR Director at LSSU.  He was looking for something unique that would put the obscure little university on the map, and, for reasons obscure, he came up with The Quest for Unicorns.

It got some attention.  Who could resist? But for Rabe it apparently wasn’t enough. At a New Year’s Eve party a few years later, in 1975, he and some of the other Unicorn Hunters got together and began writing down the words or phrases they most hated that year. (Must have been some party.)  They saw right then and there that unicorn hunters made the most perfect wordsnobs wordsmiths, and the idea for the First Annual Unicorn Hunters List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness was born. (Hereafter known as the Banished Words List. Or List.  Or list.)

Bill Rabe, old PR expert that he was, chose New Year’s Day, 1976, for the list’s debut date.  He knew from experience that January 1 is traditionally a slow news day, and the media, always hungry for tidbits on that day, would snap up the whimsical back story about the unicorn hunters and help to promote the Banished Words List.

Some of the words from that first list:  At this point in time, detente, macho, scenario.  (See 1976 list here.  See archive of all lists here.)  Now the voting is open to everyone and the words or phrases that show up most often will get to the top of the list.

Last year’s list included Selfie (no surprise), twerk/twerking, hashtag, Twittersphere (or Twitterverse, as someone corrected.) and Obamacare.

This year  they added BAE (a new word for me until my niece explained it), polar vortex, skill set, cra-cra, and my own favorite candidate, enhanced interrogation.

Well, certain people took umbrage (whoa–a candidate right there) with the Unicorn Hunters.  They didn’t see this as just so much fun; they saw it as a bunch of stuffy university types forcing people to stop using words or phrases of their choosing.   One commenter wrote, “Nobody is going to tell me what words I can use.  Not gonna happen. Bite me.”  (Oy.)banned-wordsI’ve perused (all right, read) the whole damn list from A to Z and I’m pretty sure I’ve used at least a third of those words and phrases.  (Except “bromance” and “chillaxing”. Typing them here for the first and last time.)

I literally (Literally! Ha!  Not on the list!) love lazy phrases and cliches, but only when I’m using them.  I hate it when other people take the easy way out and use them, too.  Amateurs!

I’ve followed the Unicorn Hunters for years and I love these lists, but at the end of the day (1999), they’re just words, right?  So far it’s not a crime to use them, right?  So will I try to mend my ways?

As if! (1997)

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An Education By Fits And Starts But Not Degrees

My formal “college” consists of 26 community college credits, half of them in ceramics.  I took two classes in cultural anthropology, fell in love with Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, and decided anthropology was my life’s calling–until my husband called my attention to the want ads in our big city paper.  Not a single call for anthropologists anywhere, and since we were among the almost-poor, and I still had kids at home, I had to think inside the box.

I took a business class taught by a one-handed pianist who should have stuck to his night job.  He invited our class to his concert and, even with one hand, his performance was flawless.  When it came time to evaluate him, none of us could do the honest thing and point out his flaws as a teacher of business.  We gave him high marks for personality.

I tnouveau girl reading books 1909ook two creative writing classes taught by an old pot-smoking hippie who wore chains and earrings and orange tennis shoes and who told us right off that he didn’t care what we wrote as long as we wrote something.  I thought the guy himself was ridiculous, trying as he did to be George Carlin and Jack Kerouac, all in the same skin, so it took me a while to realize how much I had actually learned there.   It came to me much later, when I was putting together materials to teach my own adult-ed creative writing classes:  What he gave us was a setting where we could write and fail and get a huge kick out of what we were doing.  He was a teacher without judgement but with a knack for finding what could be fixed.

I took a modern literature class taught by a woman I don’t remember at all–not her name, not her face, not her teaching technique.  But through her I met Eudora Welty, Joseph Conrad, Langston Hughes, and Flannery O’connor–writers I might have overlooked if she hadn’t brought them (and so many others) to my attention.

And that was the end of my formal education.  Whatever else I’ve learned, I’ve learned either by happenstance or serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time.  Stumbling across something that got me curiouser and curiouser and led me to something else that led me to something else.  Unless I got distracted; then it was something else altogether.

Living near Detroit, I had the advantage of meeting some exceptional writers and thinkers and I latched onto them like a parasite on a host.  I tried to drain them of everything they had to give–quietly, of course, without drawing blood.  I went to readings and workshops and lectures.  I joined groups where professional writers gathered.

They taught me a trade, but it’s a haphazard way to get an education.  It’s not an education, in fact.  Whatever it is, it’s full of holes.  Great gaping holes.  Great gaping embarrassing holes.  (I couldn’t find Iraq on a map if you gave me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t know what Pi is and I’m afraid I’m missing something meaningful.  I only recently found out that Goethe is pronounced “Gurt-uh”.  Good thing I never had occasion to say his name out loud.)

Now President Obama is pushing for free two-year community college for everyone.  It’ll be an uphill battle, but I’m right there beside him, rooting him on.  I don’t want anyone to have to take on the task of educating themselves.  It can’t be done.  They need teachers.  They need campus life.  They need to argue and debate, to be challenged, to be opened up to directions they might never have taken and ideas they might never have formed on their own.  They need to be pushed and pulled and exposed to a world wholly outside of themselves.

They need to prepare for jobs, and we as a country need to pave the way.  We need to build again, creating good-paying jobs for them to fill.  We need to smarten up, and the best way to do it is through education.

We know that now.

Pretty sure we do.

But I could be wrong.

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