WHAT NEXT?

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[Written yesterday. Equally applicable today.]

More godawful weather. Can’t go out. Can’t concentrate. Can’t keep pacing.  All that so-called wisdom and calm that’s supposed to come with age just wasn’t able to make it to our house today.  [Got snowed in somewhere else, I guess.]

So here I sit.

Home of The Getting Old Blog

Home of The Getting Old Blog

Would I be better off in the tropics?  Which tropics?  I don’t like hot and sweaty either.  And they do say nothing of scientific, intellectual or creative value comes from steamy equatorial countries.  [Note: There will be no defense of that statement if anyone comes forth to challenge it. I’m just putting it out there as part of the cranky internal dialogue going on in my office on this fourteenth or fifteenth or sixteenth really and truly crappy day in a row.]

Pilates was cancelled.  The last Princeton concert of the Brentano String Quartet before they decamp for Yale, and for which we had free tickets, was cancelled.  Getting up bright and early in the morning was cancelled.  [After looking out the window and pulling down the shade again, we both went back to bed with the cats. ]

Now it’s afternoon and I’m wearing two sweaters and my new knee-high UGGS, but no makeup because if I’m not going out and no one is able to come here to see me, I can just put on a lot of moisturizer to protect my elderly skin from the drying effects of the indoor heat and leave it at that. Of course Bill can see, since he’s already inside, but he knows very well what my face looks like naked and seems not to mind, or not to mind once in a while.  Like now. And the cats certainly don’t care.  They don’t make the same value judgments we do. As a matter of fact, after chasing each other up and down the stairs four or five times, they’re not making any judgments at all. They’ve just collapsed in the bedroom on top of our duvet and are now asleep again. Smart cats.

So what am I going to write about for the blog on this truly yucky afternoon?  If I don’t do a piece every morning — in special circumstances like today, every afternoon — I will use up my small backlog of pre-prepared posts and freak out.  Why that should happen when there’s no backlog I can’t explain, as there is nobody at all except me, myself and I who is holding me to this rigorous daily schedule.  But I do. And it does.  [At least until such time as I decide to make a public announcement that I’m cutting back to two pieces a week, or one a week, or something like that.]  Perhaps it’s because I’ve had too much legal education late in life, which gave me notions about implied contractual obligations, such as satisfying the “entitlements” of one’s followers established by one’s “course of dealing” with them.

If I swivel my desk chair and look the other way, maybe I’ll get some ideas.

Other side of "Getting Old" home base

Other Side of “Getting Old” Home Base

Well yes, that was helpful.  I could write about:

1.  The old photograph on top of the vertical bookstand at the right near the window.  It was taken in Russia, probably just before the outbreak of World War I, and shows my paternal grandfather, my father, and an uncle I never knew existed until I was middle-aged, so there’s sort of a story about the uncle;

2.  The period of my life when I was fat:  the why, the how, the when, and other aspects of this topic — about which there are several manuscripts on the bottom shelves of the bookcases, and also several books about being fat by other people on the shelf just above the bottom one on the right;

3.  The Guatemala chicken at the very top of the bookcase and what in the world were we thinking of when we bought it for I don’t remember how many quetzals;

4.  The ten-session group therapy program for overweight women I tried to launch last fall before beginning this blog — that cost me close to $500 for five consecutive ad insertions in the local newspaper (tear sheets  of which are in a folder also on the bottom right shelf), but produced not a single telephone call;

5.  Smoking: Where and how I learned to do it (in college, with difficulty), how much I smoked (up to two packs a day), how long I smoked (twenty years), why I stopped (to live to see my babies grow up) and when (on June 6, 1969), what it was like to stop (extraordinarily difficult), and why stopping remains, after so many years, what I still consider one of the hardest things I ever did;

6.  Our last three trips abroad — to France, Greece and Portugal, the third of which was nearly five years ago, and the only three for which I have photographs on the computer, because the hard drive of my old computer died while Apple was transferring its data to my new one, so that the pictures of earlier trips Bill and I made together exist only in prints mounted in albums, which I would have to re-photograph in order to upload them here — and yes, I might do that when I get really desperate for material, but not yet;

7. Where we might travel next (before it’s too late), a thing we discuss almost daily when we’re cooped up together like this because of snow and ice:  France again, where we still have two friends?  Japan, where we know a former neighbor and a new “virtual” friend from this blog? England, home of both actual old friends and new “virtual” ones? Israel, where Bill has a niece and I know a woman who was in college with me sixty-four years ago? Of course, all of that is merely speculative daydreaming, unless Bill can get himself out of his favorite chair and start going to the gym fairly regularly so that travel abroad won’t just be taking taxis to restaurants and expensive shops to buy things.  [Hear that, Bill?];

8.  Exercise — haha! what’s that? — for those who are, ah,  “old.”  Patti, my Pilates instructor, is especially gung-ho on this one; she even gave me some written material about the benefits of Pilates she prepared for some other presentation but assured me I could feel free to use for the blog. She hasn’t actually ever read the blog, so her material may not be funny enough, but I suppose I could tinker with it, based on recent experience with what Pilates people call “The Reformer” and I call “The Torquemada”;

9. Personal maintenance, an endlessly fruitful subject for ladies who are getting old.  [Probably not so interesting, though, to any men who might stumble upon this blog.]  Could be broken down into separate posts:

  •  hair, hairdressers and fooling the public;
  •  eyes, God willing;
  • skin and your options, none of them good;
  • makeup, otherwise known as “putting on your face”;
  • feet, footwear and pain;
  • undergarments (Spanx or not?);
  • toenails (yellowing) and pedicures (what color polish?);
  • what to wear at the beach if you must go (a burqua?) — and must you go at all.

Oh, I’ve written 1045 words already, and haven’t even begun!  I guess that’s it for today.  Please do cast votes (in the form of a “Comment” below) for any subject identified above that especially strikes your fancy.  Or even ones I haven’t thought of yet.

Now I’m going downstairs to sit by the fire.  It’s a gas fire, but it’s powered by electricity.  So I’d better take advantage of it while the power lasts.  Who knows when a tree may topple a wire and leave us in the cold and dark?

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See you tomorrow.

I hope.

SELF IMAGE REVISITED

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Until about fifteen years ago, I had a core self-image at odds with contemporaneous photographs of me. It’s true I tried to be photographed only when I was looking as good as I thought I could look.  The better explanation, however, is that my sense of self really was out of whack with what other people saw — perhaps because it had developed so young that it shaped much of what I thought and did when I grew up, which in turn only reinforced that initial perception of my central identity.

I certainly remember clearly the day I became aware of how I looked. It’s among my first recollections — right after sitting comfortably on a big rock in the sun, helping my mother feed ducks on a pond, commanding a ball that had rolled across the room, “Ball, come here!” — an important lesson in discovering limits to my powers — and toiling slowly up a steep hill behind my nursery school teacher.  Unlike the ball that refused to be summoned, my memory of that day still comes to me whenever I call it up.

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I have just turned five.  My mother has bought me a red plaid skirt with pleats to wear for the first day of kindergarten.  A white cotton puffed-sleeve blouse goes with it, and a red wool cardigan sweater.  I have never had a three-piece outfit before.  She says I look very nice in it.

Dressed in my new blouse and skirt, I wait in her bedroom near the full-length mirror on her closet door while she gets her sewing box from another room. The puffed sleeves of the blouse, edged with piping, are too tight. She is going to let out and hem the seams underneath, so the piping shouldn’t dig into my arms.

To my surprise, I see another girl has entered my mother’s bedroom. She is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt like mine.  She has a round face and double chin, and a belly that sticks out so the pleats of her skirt don’t hang straight. Although the puffed sleeves of her blouse dig into her arms uncomfortably, the way mine do, she is beaming at me, as if she wants us to be friends. Who is she, anyway? What is she doing in my mother’s room? How can she look so happy when she’s such a fatty?  

Then I understand.  My sense of self starts here: with the recognition that the foolishly smiling little butterball in the mirror is me.

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 Awareness that I was what was then known as “chubby” didn’t bother me too much as a child.  Shopping for clothes could be an ordeal, as my mother stubbornly insisted on looking in the regular Girls’ Department even when the salesladies suggested that “Chubbette” sizes would be a better fit.  But that only happened once or twice a year. Also, I didn’t like the summer I spent at sleep-away camp, because I was always chosen last for team sports since I was not good at anything but swimming.  It was only the one summer, though; I refused to go back ever again.  And it did hurt when a snotty boy I barely knew asked in seventh grade assembly whether I would burst like a balloon if he stuck a pin in me.

But in high school, by which time it had become clear the pediatrician — my mother’s revered Dr. Elitzak — was wrong in saying it was baby fat and would go away all by itself, she began to help me (a charter member of the local Clean Plate Club) by curtailing some of what, obedient to his recommendations, she had been setting before me at meals.  No more quart of whole milk a day.  No more nutritious milk puddings for dessert.  No more two slices of bread in my lunch bag; instead of sandwiches and cookies, I carried strips of cold meat and raw veggies and fruit. A thin slice of cake only on Sundays. Slowly, I dropped from an embarrassing size 16, to a 14, to a 12.  Which was pretty good for someone who was by then 5’7″.

[Note to the young, or relatively young: Those were the days when “Miss” dress sizes ran from 12 to 20 or from 10 to 18.  No such thing as size 4 or 2 or 0 or 00!  It doesn’t mean the clothes were larger. Only that the numbers have shrunk, to make fashionistas feel thinner.]

Size 12 or no, I still thought of myself as a person who might at the moment look thin but really was fat, since her apparent thinness was not natural but entirely dependent on will power which might give way at any moment.  From the time I went to college a sylph, until my late sixties, when I was finally able to come to terms with how I really looked and pretty much stopped obsessing about it — I waged a fierce and unending battle with weight.  Most of that time, especially when younger, it was with the same ten or fifteen pounds, which I gained and lost over and over again. (Always with at least two sizes of clothing in my closet, for the next swing of the yo-yo.) I used sometimes to joke that I had lost thousands of pounds in my life. It wasn’t entirely a joke.  Only an exaggeration.

My ten or fifteen (or later twenty) pounds, when they were with me, never stopped some men from finding me attractive, or kept me from getting jobs, or interfered with my health. But I always wanted them not to be there. I was always happier when they were gone. I had a central belief that informed every part of me and distracted me from concentrating on other things:  Thin is good, not so thin is not good. 

This is no tale of anorexia.  Coupled with my overwhelming desire for slenderness has always been a great love of eating just about anything you can name, except okra, and a total inability to throw up at will.  [I know because I tried once or twice after I had read about it. No dice.]  But what a waste of energy and purpose!  I mean, it’s not as if I had unsuccessfully devoted my life to social change and the greater good, or science, or the arts, or even something as crass as making money!

There were also several extended occasions in my fifties and early sixties, as real life became extremely difficult, when the urge to eat — more or less kept down so long — rebelled.  It scored triumph after triumph, and I ballooned beyond “overweight.”  [If I showed you a picture, you wouldn’t believe it.]  But I never ever could persuade myself, defiantly, that Big Was Beautiful.  So each time, I managed — with great difficulty — to deflate.

There are many other undesirable results of a life driven by the scale and by thoughts of what may be eaten, what was eaten, how to atone for what was eaten, what-the-hell-stuff-yourself-with-as-many-calorically-bad-but delicious-things-as-you-can-because-today-is-shot-anyway-and-you’ll-begin-again-tomorrow.  But we all have our “what if”s.” Which we are entitled to keep to ourselves.

Although I do sometimes wonder whether the chubby little girl I was might have grown up to wage more meaningful battles if there hadn’t been a mirror on my mother’s closet door.