You’re Only As Old As (Things Make You) Feel

bikini beach

And, okay, so this is not exactly how I go to the beach these days. Now, for example, my camera is digital.

People say they don’t feel whatever age they are. I get that. I look in the mirror, mentally taking note of myself on the morning of my birthday. I slip into the same clothes I wore yesterday, or last winter, or the year my oldest daughter was born. 53 doesn’t feel any different than 52, which didn’t feel any different than 51, etc. etc. I still like to dance. I can be silly, especially during faculty meetings when it is impossible not to whisper comments under my breath to my colleagues. I’ve been known to throw a recent tantrum or two. I haven’t ever cured myself of my fear of spiders. I will treat myself to a frosted gingerbread man at the grocery store.

Of course, people also say: It’s not the number! These are people whose own numbers are greater than, say, 40. But it really isn’t 53 that makes me feel old; it’s any one of the following:

  • My daughters sing songs whose lyrics offend me, or
  • I say, “How can you like this song? I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
  • My students don’t get my references to: Jeffrey Dahmer; quarter to an hour; the Royal “we”; Seinfeld; drinking the Kool Aid. Kool Aid.
  • I wear American Eagle jeans (because otherwise I would have spent hours in the store doing nothing while my daughters shopped) and my students say, “Oh my god! You’re wearing American Eagle jeans!”
  • I hate backing out of parking spaces.
  • I have to scroll down, and keep scrolling, and scroll a little more on the pull down menu to enter the year of my birth.
  • Immediately after getting my hair cut and colored, I run several errands in very crowded places where I meet dozens of people I know and I’m feeling pretty good-looking except that as soon as I get home, I notice that my sideburns are painted so black, I look like a very amateur Elvis impersonator. Like a very old, amateur Elvis impersonator.
  • Mornings, when I first stand on my ankles, they hurt.
  • Mornings, when I wonder why my butt is so sore, I hope it’s because the day before I did a few squats. But then I realize: Nope. Just pulled a few weeds.
  • I panic when I don’t have a pair of reading glasses (except, of course, the ones on my head).
  • When I get my alumni magazine and flip to the back page to catch up on Class News, I discover that my graduating class’s column has moved much closer to the centerfold.
  • I suggest someone rent the DVD.
  • I always forget to click the full screen option.
  • When I am finally reminded to click full screen, I fail to move the cursor off the full screen so that it points directly into the actor’s nostril.
  • Autocorrect.
  • Autoformat.
  • Texting with any kind of speed or accuracy BUT being able to type without looking at the keys! (Thank you, 7th grade typing teacher with her ASDFJKL: space drills and Christmas tree puzzles).
  • Y2K feels like something that happened in the 80’s.
  • I have no idea what kind of shoes to wear with skinny jeans.
  • I wear clogs. I like clogs.
  • One of my students says, “Hey, did you know that there was once a skater from Massachusetts who was attacked by another skater right before the Olympics?” His classmates gasp and say, “NO! What happened?” and he says, “Well, it was a long time ago.”
  • Everyone adheres to random rules of capitalization. Also, of the apostrophe.
  • I realize how many times I tell my family to look at how cute the cat is.
  • The doctor walks into the examining room and I say, “Christ, Doogie Howser,” and s/he says, “Who?”
  • I tell people I don’t drink water and they warn me how close I am to death and I say, “We didn’t have water when I was a kid.”
  • My former students turn 40.
  • My former students turn 47.
  • Some of my friends are grandparents.
  • No cat in my neighborhood ever has a litter of kittens.
  • I can’t recognize people in the photos from my latest high school reunion. In fact, I can’t even remember who was in my class in high school.
  • I wonder whatever happened to Riunite. To Boone’s Farm. To Red, White, and Blue Beer. To Peppermint Schnapps. To Zarex.
  • I understand that it’s really true: Things do come back in style (legwarmers?!).
  • Tattoos have no allure. None. Zero. Not for free. Not if someone gave me four million dollars to get one. Not if they’re on an impossibly bulging bicep. (Bulging biceps do still have an allure but it feels very creepy to admit this.)
  • In certain restaurants, it is impossible to see the menu.
  • I pluck my eyebrows all by myself. Look, kids: No waxing!
  • I can eat gluten.
  • I LIKE the skirt on my bathing suit, thank-you very much.
  • Movies are, like, really, really loud.
  • I will drive quite a distance for 100 percent cotton underwear whose lines might or might not be visible through my pants.
  • I hear other adults saying things like, “That’s a force,” and I cringe.
  • I think, “That’s a force,” is a really stupid thing to say even if you’re not an adult.
  • I get up to go to work and my RETIRED husband doesn’t.
  • My RETIRED husband does the grocery shopping.
  • My RETIRED husband.
  • No one in my friend group is ever too broke to do stuff. Just too tired.
  • I haven’t bought a really sparkly party dress in a long, long time. Long time.
  • And even if I did, I’d have to wear it with my clogs.

Napkin Notes to The Stone or How I Met Lauren

black-and-white-candlesOnce upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had two best friends. Funny and creative and bright. Beautiful girls with the kind of long, straight hair I coveted. These were note-writing years and Thanksgiving Day Game rally on the Post Office step years. Years we danced in Ericka Hemphill’s basement to Brick House, years we wore down vests with hoodies underneath them, Levi corduroys, Tretorn sneakers. We took chorus with Mr. Norcia whose heart seemed permanently broken by our tunelessness. In gym class, during the gymnastics unit, Laura Sminkey brought in her Carly Simon album and we hung around pretending to take turns on the trampoline singing You’re So Vain. Saturday Night Live had the original Not Ready for Primetime Players. We knew every word of Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleepovers occurred in people’s re-done basements where we unrolled our sleeping bags on cement floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting and slept like rocks.

I thought the same thing we all think when we’re just becoming teenagers: these days will never end. These friendships will last my whole life. Especially, most fervently, I thought that.

For a person who always knew she wanted to be a writer, who kept journals, who has vivid memories that certainly seem real, I should be able to remember what, exactly, went wrong with those two friendships. The generalities, I recall, and can sum up this way: Whatever it took to be a good friend, I had not quite figured out and it cost me.

I spent a little more than one year of high school without friends (except my 4-H friends, but I was without a license and the half hour between my house and theirs seemed like a journey to Bangladesh). I learned, from a very unique perspective, that, despite how friendly people were when you sat next to them in Spanish class, when it came time to saving you a seat at the lunch table or calling you up to invite you to the basketball game, they had their group and, perhaps they assumed, you still had yours.

Thanks to Donna Schaeffer, Mary Jo Sisco, and Sandra Trombino, I wasn’t lonely for long, but those lessons stayed with me. You could grow very attached to someone and then, everything could end.

The ghosts of those friendships followed me all the way out of Westerly High School and to the University of New Hampshire where one fall night, I sat at my desk doing homework. Lauren Liberman, the girl next door who never seemed to be next door, was sitting in the chair beside me eating a Tootsie Pop and avoiding her own studying.

My roommate, Tedi, was clever and witty and unpredictable. Even so early in the semester, we were used to her making us laugh. But when I said something humorous, Lauren stared at me.

“You’re funny,” she said, the way a suspicious detective would say, “You’re left-handed,” to a suspect in a case where the murderer was left-handed.

I shrugged and continued on with my assignment, ignoring them the rest of the night.

A few weeks later in the dining hall, she said, “You do know what your nickname is here, right?”

I’d never had a nickname and had always wanted one, so this was exciting. But then she said, “The Stone.”

Why was she even here with me? She mostly hung out with Tedi who must’ve had a late class. The first day we’d moved into the university’s biggest and most notorious highrise, Lauren’s mother had cornered Tedi’s and said, “Have your daughter look out for my daughter.” A bond had been forged.

I, on the other hand, wanted none of it. Dependencies. People waiting to eat dinner with you so you didn’t have to eat alone. Late night chats in your pajamas while someone air popped some corn. Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, I would have chanted, if I had had any awareness of my own actions. Obviously, I had no idea how to be a friend. This I had accepted about myself as easily as I understood I needed to avoid calculus at all costs. But so long as I was minding my own business, who cared?

“We call you this because you give nothing away,” she said. “Nothing.”

Outside the cafeteria’s plate glass windows, kids played hacky sack on the sparse lawn or walked in groups towards the library up the hill.

“I don’t know you,” I said.

“No,” she said, “and at this rate, you’ll never get to know anyone. You have to let people in, you know.”

After this ABC Afterschool Special moment, I choked down whatever beige food I’d collected on my tray, mumbled a silent: Fuck you, and headed back out onto a campus where, mercifully, I knew no one. It was one of the reasons I had been so desperate to come here.

I played intramural sports. Interviewed to be a Freshman Camp counselor. Volunteered to help out with the floor’s pasta party. Look at me! I wanted to say. I’m fitting in here just fine, thank you.

Later that semester, back in the dining hall, a boy from my English class walked by me and tossed a napkin onto my tray. George and I walked to class each night with another girl from my dorm. The first boy I’d met on campus happened to be a farmer’s kid, too, red-faced, more painfully awkward than I was (or at least I hoped so).

As he darted out the door in his Allis Chalmers hat and Wranglers, I opened the napkin: Party in my dorm room, Saturday night.

Christ, I thought. The more you try to avoid people, the more napkin notes they toss into your unsuspecting path.

Tedi was heading home that weekend, stocking up on leather boots and silk sweaters at the mall she could see from her bedroom window. I could just refuse the invitation, but that seemed cruel. I might not be interested in George, but I could appreciate the risk he took in chucking that missive in my direction.

“If I’m not back in an hour, call campus security,” I said. In Tedi’s absence, Lauren had camped out on her bed.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. There are times, this many years later, that I still think she’s a little crazy.

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t go alone, can you?”

Maybe not, but I wouldn’t have accompanied her.

Still, we went. To Alexander Hall which was full of jocks minus one Future Farmer of America whose party consisted of me, him, his roommate, and Lauren, who, when they asked us, posed with me in a picture. Trophy girls for the first and only times in our lives, perhaps, we sat together on the plaid bedspread and smiled.

That was the end of that romance, but not the end of my friendship with Lauren. It was a friendship, it turned out. After all, how can you continue to keep your guard up around a person willing to honor your very first napkin note invite? A person whose image, even now, might be tacked up over a workbench on some cold New England farm where a much older George reminisces on his college sweethearts?

She has taught me many things about how to be a friend starting with this: you don’t have to do everything alone. What a gift that was. How it began to heal me. Every friendship I have made since, began in that moment she revealed my nickname. Every one.

Today is my birthday and, in this era of social media, I’ve been wished so many happy birthdays from so many wonderful people. Hard to believe how lucky I am. But along with the gratitude I feel for every greeting, comes the lingering sadness that, once in my life, I lost two people whose friendships I might have had almost five decades later. Those two women keep a part of my history no one else will ever have a glimpse into. And, somehow, I had to let them go. I had to turn to stone, and then, ever so slowly, return to my very flawed and vulnerable self.

It might surprise people that such a happy day always reminds me of less happy ones. But it won’t surprise Lauren.

 

Weekend Write-In: Onion Skin and Bleaching Fields

view_of_haarlem_with_bleaching_grounds_c1665_ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields

 

Remember getting assigned a research project when you were a kid? In the 1970’s, this meant heading downtown to the Westerly Public Library, a setting more awe-inspiring to me than any cathedral. Despite the library’s grandeur, it’s circular children’s room with windows that looked out onto Wilcox Park, its glass-floored fiction shelves, its winding staircase that led who-knows-where, the reference room was a dingy place full of thick-spined volumes on metal shelves. The reverence I felt for this institution took a serious hit as I considered the work ahead. We’d unpack our backpacks onto solid oak tables, flick through the card catalog and return with some barely totable tome from which we’d completely plagiarize our material until our hands cramped so much, it was time to head to BeeBee’s dairy for a hotdog on a buttered roll.

Then, Christ have mercy, it was time to go home and type. On the way, you prayed you had an ancient, water-stained box of onion skin and that the ink ribbon had not dried out since you last attempted to hunt and peck your way through this particular brand of misery. And if the gods were with you and everything worked out just fine, there were still those moments when, clicking along at secretarial pool speed, you looked up only to realize you had long ago run out of paper and had committed several lines to the typewriter rollbar. This, of course, meant you had left no space for those bottom-of-the-page footnotes. So you sobbed hysterically and considered dropping out of school. You imagined your teacher with his feet up eating out of a big bag of Lays and watching Wide World of Sports (and then you imagined him as an Agony of Defeat example) and finally, tragically, hopelessly, you began again — only to realize you’d run out of onion skin. No worries. The store at Clark’s Paper Mill, which was the only place within a four hour radius that stocked the stuff, would be open on Monday. Same day the paper was due.

This crisis would fire my mother up considerably. Why had I waited so long to start? Why hadn’t I checked to see what I needed to complete the work days ago? She’d proceed to tear up the spare room where we kept a desk and a blizzard of papers in the world’s worst filing system. When that turned up no supplies, she’d start calling her sisters, her cousins, her friends, her friends’ sisters, her friends’ cousins, until finally, at the home of one of the people you felt least comfortable with in the world, someone coughed up a sheet or two of onionskin.

“Okay, goddamnit,” she’d say. “Now go get it.”

Did I mention I was paralyzingly shy? Social awkwardness was something I longed to attain one day as it would have been a step in the right direction.

After a few more hours of me pleading with her to come with me and then, worse yet, my mother’s chilling Silent Treatment, we would climb into one the old Impalas or another and she would peel out of our laneway, hellbent on a mission to get the goddamn paper or kill us both trying.

Anyway, I guess it all got done. I graduated high school. I never turned an assignment in late.

All of this is to say, however, that I wish I had known then how fun research could be. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend Brian requested a poem about Dutch landscapes. This led to me doing several Google image searches and discovering a world of bleaching fields and tulip trading. It also led me, not to the stuffiest room in a library, but to the Museum of Fine Arts on a Friday night before a long weekend in the company of a real-live landscape painter. We were among the last visitors to the Museum’s special exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

I brought along a notebook and scribbled some of the following:

  • Dutch scientists discovered Saturn’s rings
  • Dutch women had much in common with Nantucket women; wives of merchants and wives of whalers were often left to run things at home
  • In Haarlem you would have smelled the breweries
  • Bleacheries soaked linens in buttermilk for three weeks!
  • A Herring Buss = a ship on which you can gut and salt the catch
  • Fishmongers were mostly women who kept baskets floating in rivers to keep the fish fresh
  • In Salomon Van Ruysdael’s River Landscape with Riders on a Ferry, one cow is scratching her neck

I have no idea which of these details, if any, will make it into Brian’s poem. But I have been immersed in a world that will surely lend itself to some inspiration for a poem. I aspire to paint life-sized portraits of my loved ones in poses that will make them laugh. I can’t get the image of Rembrandt’s illuminated ruffles out of my mind, nor do I ever hope to. Also, my hands aren’t shaking. No deadline looms. I didn’t cry once. Somewhere nearby, my mother is donning her Steelers sweatshirt and awaiting today’s game, her love for me blissfully unconditional.

My research ended, not with a real-life model for a summer blockbuster chase scene, but with a root vegetable torte and a glass of pinot grigio that I raised to evolution, and to the utter extinction of onion skin.

 

Weekend Write-In: Books I Will Remember (fingers crossed)

old-woman-reading-newspaper-cartoon_gg61902082

 

This is how it goes in book group some nights: someone says, “Didn’t we read a book about ____?” and then several other people nod. “Yes. Yes. I remember. That’s the book where ___ happened.” Someone else says, “Right! And the mother is ___.” The conversation goes on and on without me because, meanwhile, I am sitting there in a cold sweat, thinking: I am long overdue for a brainscan.

I lead our book group. I choose the titles after serious research. I’ve only missed one meeting in ten years. So, unless it’s Mill in the Floss, I’ve been part of an hour long discussion on every  work . Where, then, are those details that are so readily accessible to others?

When, finally, the details bubble up, one neuron sparking another (if that’s how these things happen), until I follow a blinking light through the darkness in my mind and towards that one gold thread that will lead me to a relief more divine than any reading experience I’ve ever had (and I’ve had any number of terrific reading experiences), I celebrate. Not only am I not losing my mind, I remember that book! The book! The book is not lost to me. Those hours I spent in its company. The pages I felt beneath my fingers. The characters into whose intensely private moments, I eavesdropped.

Eventually, I decided to keep a list of the books I read each year. This mostly helps (though, I confess, sometimes only a few weeks after I’ve closed the covers, I have to check the Amazon review to remember the plot). So, here are some of my favorite titles from this year. I’d love to hear what you recommend!

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was, by far, the funniest.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala was definitely the most heartbreaking, but a beautifully written book.

Why has it taken me so long to read Montana by Larry? It has been on my shelf for years. Thank God, I finally plucked it off. A quick and brilliant read.

Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner. Again, long overdue, but I’ll read it again someday. And again.

A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Eagan (okay, so I’m not exactly prompt with these things)

Good-Bye Shoes Jill McCorkle (short stories). How does she do it? The humor and then the gut-wrenching poignancy?

How to be Good Nick Hornsby. I read this alone and wished (still wish) I had been part of a discussion on it. It raised so many questions for me. Loved it.

One Man’s Meat EB White (re-read). What can I say? White has been my favorite writing teacher forever.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. I fought to get to page 100 but when a writer examines truth the way Hustvedt does, you have to work at it, and WOW it was soooo worth it.

Family Life Akhil Sharma (If you love the craft of writing, this is the book I would recommend. Stunning.)

So many other wonderful books, poems!!!, stories, kept me company in 2015. I hope the same has been true for you.