Much of my blogging tends to deal with a not-so-young-anymore woman’s take on life today. Here are some samples.
This leg was once able to swing effortlessly up on a ballet barre. Or over my head while I balanced on the other one. Along with its partner, this leg could clear the back, not just the seat, of a chair set in the middle of the ballet studio for giant leaps, a somewhat useless skill for a female dancer. And when my father in his increasing impoverishment was quick to accept my half-hearted offer to quit ballet, I went on to other pursuits. Then this leg and its twin were able to reach over my curved back so the feet could touch the back of my head during a cheerleading jump. It could do the splits. And in college, this leg danced with a tall Norwegian man whose skill, and mine, caused others to step back, relinquish the dance floor and watch in admiration.
This leg walked in grade school and high school and college graduation ceremonies and into job interviews, and when I began working on newspapers, it took me out on assignments and then rested under the desk while I wrote my stories. Once, when I’d climbed to the roof of an old mansion designed as a castle, the rest of me froze at the top and had to be coaxed down by the photographer accompanying me. He held onto my legs and guided my feet down the iron bars imbedded into the castle walls.
This leg supported feet in pointed-toe shoes with spike heels whose metal core caused crescent-shaped indentations in people’s linoleum floors so that hosts began requesting women leave their shoes at the door.
This leg walked down an aisle and carried babies. It helped children learn to walk and ride bicycles and drive a stick shift. It walked alongside a long succession of big dogs on walks up and down hills, and it climbed innumerable ladders in many rooms of many houses that we owned so I could paint many walls. This leg dug holes for planting plants in many gardens, and followed behind wheelbarrows hauling gravel for paths and topsoil. We were hard workers, this leg and I.
And now, in my eighth decade, this leg is rebelling. When I try to get it to accept its share of my weight, it registers its agony. “Maybe arthritis,” the doctor says. One of the forms he has me fill out contains lists of activities and asks if I do them: vacuuming? Of course I vacuum. Why doesn’t it also ask rug shampooing? Or window washing? Or, for that matter, sightseeing or trawling through art museums? How about tromping around the ruins of Rome and Pompeii.? This leg and I have been through a lot.
Now, I struggle with crutches and curse my awkwardness.
The newspaper had a story about an 80-year-old woman who slipped on the ice in her horse corral, lashed her legs together to stabilize the hip that broke in three places and dragged herself through ice and mud the 40 yards back to her house. It took her four hours, and once she got inside the first call she made, before 911, was to her daughter 30 miles away, telling her she needed to come to feed the horses.
I want to be that woman. I want to be like all those impressive old women I read about, women in their 80s and 90s who keep going in spite of the accumulating years. Women who stare down old age and dare it to get in the way of what they want to accomplish. Who refuse to accept the stereotypes of old age. Who would not own a rocking chair if you paid them…
Damn! When will that pain pill start to kick in?
First published October 21, 2013
I’ll Tell You a Story if You’re Old Enough
There are reasons why older people ought to hang out with one another. I mean aside from when your eyebrows need tweezing and there’s a long gray hair growing out of your chin. Your older friends’ eyesight is not any better than yours so they can’t see those things either.
Furthermore, you don’t have to feign interest in such things as blogging and tweeting and the existence of Facebook. And let’s not even go there when it comes to popular music and that truly strange art form known as rap. You can’t understand any of the words and have a feeling that it’s probably better that way.
More important, though, is the matter of historical context. Increasingly, I am noticing that I draw blanks from younger people at certain points in the stories I have been telling for years. Like the time I mentioned that my husband had spent his career at the former Bell System. The young person to whom I imparted that information said, “What’s that?” “That,” for any young person reading this, was the nationwide telephone system whose efficiency was admired around the world and whose breakup in 1984 mystified the company’s counterparts overseas. “If it’s the best telecommunications system on earth, why on earth change it?” was the headline on an ad at the time in which the company tried to explain itself. My husband, who had a hand in creating that ad, said the company caved because an antitrust suit was threatening to drag on for years. And AT&T wanted to be able to compete in the marketplace that was changing the telephone business. Things such as those that now enable blogging and tweeting and the like.
Recently, when I told some younger people that I had grown up in New Jersey, one asked why I did not talk like the Sopranos. Well, for one thing, most people in New Jersey do not talk like the Sopranos. But the question offered an opportunity for me to tell the story of the remedial speech course I was encouraged to take in college.
I enrolled at the University of Missouri where my Nebraska-born father was happy to send me, perhaps in the hope that I would lose some of my New Jersey accent and also because it was cheaper even for an out-of-stater than the Ivy League. At the time, back then in the Ice Age, all freshmen were required to take a speech test. As I recall, it consisted of standing in front of a group and speaking a little about where you were from and what brought you to the university. As I’ve told the story, a fellow before me was wearing bib overalls. That’s probably an embellishment but it enabled me to add, in an aside, that in those pre-hippie days I had never seen a person wearing bib overalls. He related in what I considered a “country” accent that he was from a small town in Missouri and had come to major in agriculture.
I smiled to myself as he spoke. My New Jersey home was just across the river from New York City, a place we New Jerseyans began making our way to as soon as we looked old enough to get away with lying about our age. The drinking age then in New York was eighteen, unlike New Jersey’s twenty-one. So I considered myself the ultimate sophisticate. Of course I would breeze past this silly test, but that farmer fellow needed help.
So yes, he passed and I failed. The speech professors trolling for students asked me to stay behind. “We think you would benefit from our course,” one said. I exploded. “This is so unfair! Just because I’m from a different part of the country.”
“Well,” the other professor said, “didn’t you come here for an education?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“When you leave here, don’t you want to sound like an educated person?”
“Yeah,” I said again. “What do I sound like now?”
“You sound like a gun moll.”
Now when I tell this story, I get blank stares at the end from younger people, which is disconcerting since it makes the punch line fall flat. I guess you had to grow up reading Dick Tracy in the comics to know that a gun moll is a gangster’s girlfriend.
I did take the course and learned to watch the pronunciation of certain vowels. I also spent four years in Missouri and then moved back and forth across country several times. Once in San Francisco I was being considered for a job in television because, the interviewer said, I had no noticeable regional accent. I chuckled to myself at that one.
Younger people probably aren’t aware that consumer interest – car loans, credit cards, department store accounts and such – once was tax deductible on a person’s income tax. A daughter who just learned this was shocked. “What was the rationale for that?” Probably a ploy, I said, to get us all hooked on buying on credit. And look where that got us.
So another of my stories to retire. Back in our younger days, we filled out our own income tax returns, and sometimes we were audited. For one of those audits, my husband gathered up all the statements we had accrued in the year and took them in to an IRS office to present to the auditor. “Where does it show the interest?” she asked. “I’ve never had a credit account.” Oooh boy, my husband thought, we are in trouble here. And we were – until we settled with them.
I have been thinking lately that I need to retire these old stories and find new things to talk about. But I tell you, I refuse to do it in a tweet.
First published October 14, 2013
Color Me Gray. For the Moment
Have you ever stood at the back of a large room – an auditorium, a concert hall, perhaps a church – and surveyed the heads of men and women sitting there together? The men’s hair gray or white, the women’s blond, red, brown, black, streaked or highlighted. What is this? Men with their daughters? Refugees from a Cialis® commercial? When did we women of a certain age begin to feel the need to color our hair? And if we consider ourselves equal partners with our men, why are we not equal in the hair color department?
Of course, here in Southern California, lots of men, especially actors, also color their hair. And now that the Never Ending Great Recession has put so many men (and women) on the job market to vie with much younger competition, I suppose dyed hair could be considered a necessity. Maybe even a tax deductible business expense.
Remember the hair dye scare of the 1970s? Because some experiments with laboratory rats and hair dye indicated that coloring your hair could cause various forms of cancer, there was panic among the vast number of people to whom hair dye was of paramount importance. My memory is that the panic was short-lived, eased by assurances that people wanted to hear and that everyone went back to dying their hair. (I was not a hair dye user at the time and my daughters had not yet entered the hair-color-of-the-week experimentation stage so I was only peripherally interested in the subject.) Now I read that sometime in the mid to late 1970s manufacturers changed some of the chemicals used in hair dyes and while studies continue, most results are inconclusive.
But that is not why I’ve stopped coloring my hair. I’ve found myself admiring women (men too) with wonderful heads of pearl gray or snow white hair. People like poor beleaguered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius whose battle to bring affordable health insurance to Americans might have turned her hair white if it weren’t already that way. But it’s beautiful. Also Helen Mirren, Jamie Lee Curtis, Judi Dench. And how about Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada?”
It’s time to be a grownup, I told myself. And besides, what was under all those blond highlights that had somehow morphed over the years into a mostly blond do? Well, it’s gray. Sort of. In places. Nothing like any of those aforementioned women of course. Still, it fascinates me to watch it showing up. One of those interesting developments of the aging process. Like no longer having to shave your legs, a prospect one of my daughters found exhilarating when I told her.
But don’t hold me to the gray hair thing. I could wake up one morning and go screaming off to the hairdresser for help. Unless, that is, I turn into Helen Mirren.
[Photos: Kathleen Sebelius, abcnews.go.com; Helen Mirren, helenmirren.com;
jamie lee curtis, wikipedia.org; Meryl Streep, fanpop.com; Judi Dench, biography.com]
First published February 25, 2014
Africa On My Mind
The world lurches from one crisis to another. The media struggles to continue keeping us informed. And in the process, ongoing coverage of particular news stories drops from view. In my case, it’s been news about Mali and especially Timbuktu, so that is why The Guardian’s photo essay by Sean Smith and accompanying stories by Alex Duval Smith was such a welcome addition to my inbox.
When they say that travel broadens a person, I guess it means that it expands your interest and understanding of a place and its people. If you were lucky enough to actually meet people in another country, as opposed to just glimpsing them from the window of a tour bus, the experience stays with you forever. And even if you didn’t maintain contact with those people, your concern for them and hope for their well-being remains.
When rebel jihadists invaded Mali’s northern desert region and fundamentalist Islamists announced their intention to impose Sharia law, one of my first thoughts was for the cute and giggly teenage girls who walked along Timbuktu’s dusty main street with my cousin and me. What would become of them and other women and girls we met? The fact that the militants have been routed and peace somewhat restored is only partly comforting because you know it could happen all over again when the French and United Nations troops depart.
When I read about militants seizing and destroying ancient documents I thought of the earnest young man at the Ahmed Baba Center for Historical Research who described the library’s efforts to preserve brittle manuscripts written in various languages and convert their contents to digital and other formats. They were hoping to obtain a university internship in the west for an African student to learn about modern preservation techniques. How horrible it must have been for scholars to see those precious materials, to which they’d devoted their lives, being carried off. But then I read later how not just librarians but ordinary citizens of Timbuktu took it upon themselves to hide documents, even burying some in the ground during the uprising, to save them. Stories like that came afterward and were inspiring, as are The Guardian’s depictions of a people persevering against unimaginable challenges.
Returning from five weeks in three west African countries and later, from three weeks in southern Africa, I wrote stories about my experiences because that’s what writers do. But, much as it would have pleased me to see these stories in a published book, I did not feel I had the right to do so. I was not presented as a writer to the people I met and photographed. I was just “Dorothy’s cousin” who was along for the experiences. So I’m putting the stories here on this website of unpublished material, having started with Timbuktu, with more to follow. I hope you enjoy reading them and find the experience “broadening.”
First published on June 24, 2014
Pat, you never sounded like a gun moll, at least not to these East Orange ears.
Aw, c’mon. We all sounded like hoods and gun molls, didn’t we? At least those Midwestern professors thought so.
Hi Pat …remember me? We sure had some great times at CJS.
Yes, we did. Clifford J. Scott High School, named for some long-gone superintendent of schools and now long gone itself. Mr. Scott’s name lent itself to wonderful school spirit-inspiring titles: The Bagpipe newspaper, The Tartan yearbook, Scottie dog mascots and those terrific plaid kilt skirt uniforms the twirlers wore. it was a fun place.