GAME CHANGER, NAME CHANGER

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Readers for whom new posts from this blog arrive via email may not have noticed. Between the last post and this one, “The Getting Old Blog” acquired a new name.  It was time.  How long can you go on “getting” old without eventually reaching your destination?

“The Getting Old Blog” began life nearly five years ago, in November 2013.  (This was after three weeks or so of baby-step experimentation in “Learning to Blog” — still out there in the ethernet if you’re interested, although I don’t see why anyone would be).  Despite the scary-sounding year of my birth (1931), I didn’t feel particularly old at 82, and thought a blog marking my passage into the “later years” might be a good place to park bits of memoir (old folks tend to look back), memoir disguised as fiction, and general reflections on what was happening to me as I reluctantly rolled towards becoming 83, and then 84, and so forth.

But as you’ve already read (two posts back in “So What Happened?”) last year was for a nanosecond the end of me. Having your heart stop beating, although they get it going again, really does change the rules of the game. Not to mention the months and months of medical and pharmaceutical tribulation that necessarily follow such a near-terminal event.  Who was I kidding with this “getting old” stuff?  I was old.  I am old.  In bed at night, with the lights out, I can still fantasize that a near-crazed-with-lust eighteen-year-old is pressing hard and stiff against my luscious seventeen-year-old body. It helps, of course, if I’m on my back and an eleven-pound cat is lying vertically on top of my mid-section or else pushing in rhythmically with its two front paws. You think that’s funny? With the lights on, I do too. I know what I look like undressed; I still have a full-length mirror. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but no one ever called me stupid.

One of my grandsons, who at twelve of course knows nothing of his Nana’s occasional nighttime fantasies, tried to reassure me last week that “you’re only as old as you feel.” Like many pre-adolescents he’s a sponge for grown-up expressions — even though he still lacks the life experience to know when they’re cliches. To which I immediately replied, “That’s a lot of crap!” and everyone burst out laughing, partly because it’s true, but also because 87-year-old grandmas aren’t expected to say “crap” out loud– at least not in the suburbs of Brandon, Florida.

I’ve therefore been thinking for a while of what to rename the blog. Some ideas — “While There’s Still Time” or “Near Journey’s End” — were too funereal. “What It’s Like To Be 87” was appealing; I could change the number each time I acquired another birthday. But it would be inaccurate. Each of us ages somewhat differently, and what 87 is like for me will not reflect the experience of every 87-year-old woman. I seem to be an outlier.  One example only: I know a number of near-87-year-old women who sleep with their cats but are glad — at least they say they’re glad — their sex lives are over. Hand-holding might be all right, but anything more than that: no-siree, an expression that dates them as much as anything. Bottom line: “On Being Old” seemed most descriptive without necessarily being depressing.  It’s also an accommodating title. It can encompass scraps of memoir as well as details of my life in a so-called “over-55,” but really more like “over-70” or “over-75,” community.  In fact, it will accommodate just about anything about being me at this stage of my life, whatever that stage is.

So welcome to “On Being Old.”  Don’t get hung up on the new name and go away.  It’s really just the same old same old… me.

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Selfie taken in Florida last week. (Slightly retouched but only slightly.) The sunglasses do help.

 

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LUST, REVISITED

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[By the time you read this, I shall have spent the afternoon just past in Manhattan, attending a cello concert in his other grandmother’s apartment by my now-eight-year-old grandson. (She has a piano for the accompanist; that’s why it takes place there.)  Those of you who’ve been hanging around TGOB for a while, say ten months or so, may recall I did the same thing last year, when he was seven. The concert last year was to commemorate his having finished the pieces in Book One of the Suzuki Method and being able to play them all by heart. Now he has mastered the pieces in Book Two.  Given the amount of money his loving parents have poured into this lengthy learning process, I anticipate at least better finger skills and perhaps more interesting “music.”  Anyway, what are grandmas for, if not to fill seats at Sunday afternoon musicales by their progeny?

Not being one who is able to tap out posts on an i-Phone while riding New Jersey Transit into Penn Station, I thought it might therefore not be inappropriate to keep the blog going tonight by re-running the piece that appeared here last March after his first concert, which was not really about the concert at all.  Nothing much has changed.  Same crappy weather; same black down coat; same handbag and water bottle; same glasses on a chain. (Different book and different scarf, but those are mere details.)  Most important: the same feelings. Now if only the rest of the ride home were unchanged!  Well, we can’t have everything, can we?] 

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LUST

Last Sunday, I went in to New York by train to attend a cello concert given by my seven-year old grandson for his parents, grandparents and a few young friends from school who are also studying an instrument. He had finished Book One of the Suzuki method of instruction, and part of the Suzuki method is the requirement that the student play all of the pieces in the book from memory for an informal gathering of family or friends.The concert was a happy event, carried off with aplomb by its sole performer (who loves applause) — with plenty of tasty refreshments afterwards.

The trip in and out of the city, however, was a less happy event, as it always is, something realtors invariably neglect to mention when you are looking to buy in Princeton. Except for the politicos among us, Princetonians generally try to forget that Princeton is in New Jersey. When someone asked me over the post-concert refreshments if I was from New Jersey, I instinctively answered, “Well, yes, but not really. I live in Princeton.” To which he replied, “Ah yes. That is a separate place.”

The train to New York City from Princeton is the New Jersey Transit Northeast Line. It should come as no surprise to anyone who rides it to hear me call it a third-world train. It is slow, with antiquated cars, and passes through some of the most run-down parts of a state generally acknowledged to be blighted (despite the proud claims of its portly and vindictive governor). When it finally arrives, it pulls into the belly of hideously overcrowded Penn Station, itself located beneath Madison Square Garden in an unpleasant, highly commercial part of the city packed with human bodies pushing every which way against you as you try to fight your way out of the exits.

That said, the Northeast Line does boast a few — very few — newer cars, designed to carry more passengers per car length by being double decker (with one station-level section at each end of each car), and colored blue (in contrast to the dingy turd-brown color of the older cars). So it was my good fortune that the 4:34 to Trenton last Sunday afternoon (passing Secaucus, Newark Airport, Newark Penn Station, Metropark, Linden, Edison, New Brunswick and Princeton Junction on its way) was one of the so-called “new” ones. And it wasn’t even crowded.

In fact, by the time I had phoned Bill to alert him to when I’d be home, reviewed the photos and two videos of the concert on my i-Phone, taken a swig of water from the water bottle I carry in my purse on trips, nodded off for three or four stops, and then pulled myself back into consciousness to check where we were on the itinerary, I found I was due to get off at the next stop and there were just two other people left in the lower level of the car I was sitting in. One of them was across the aisle from me and in the row ahead, so I had only a partial view of his profile from the rear, but something about it attracted my attention.

Was it the line of his jaw? The muscle outlining the side of his mouth? The slightly olive complexion? The contrast between his bookish eyeglasses and the knit cap with a hole in the back that nearly covered his dark brown hair? Except for the knit cap, he strongly resembled — in one-third rear profile — my first serious boyfriend as he had been in 1948 and 1949. But he looked taller. And the hands were larger — more like my first husband’s, only with less pronounced knuckles. They were deftly manipulating photos on a smartphone over which he leaned — with what? Interest? Longing?

The leaning posture showed me the shape of his muscular shoulders, tapered back and narrow waist beneath a short jacket of some thinsulate material that clung. Safe from his view, I further examined with growing interest the lean strong thighs pressing against his narrow jeans. I even noted his footwear: tan laced-up ankle boots collared in dark brown leather. He was what? Twenty-eight? Thirty at most?

You could say I gobbled him up with my eyes. Then I was stripping him naked in my mind and sliding my hands against his skin. Yes, I was aware of who I was and what I looked like (had anyone been looking, but no one was): an eighty-two year old grandma in a black down full length coat, with a wavy grey wool scarf around her neck and glasses hanging on a chain over them, with a book by Louis Begley and a water bottle sticking out of her dark red leather handbag. But I was nevertheless flooded with what had rapidly transformed itself into unabashed and ravenous lust — for a man easily young enough to be my grandson (had I begun reproducing somewhat earlier than I did) and with whom I almost certainly had absolutely nothing in common. And yet, in some other fantasy world where he was blind (and therefore willing) — I might have dropped to my knees between his legs and reached for the zipper, right there on the New Jersey Transit between New Brunswick and Princeton Junction. Not that I’ve ever actually done anything like that in my real life. But the older you get, the freer the thoughts.

Just then he leaped to his feet, snatched up his khaki backpack and moved fast to the stairs leading up to the station-level part of the car. This section had a few fold-up seats lining the sides, where passengers are supposed to park their heavy baggage, strollers, carriages and bikes. Without a second thought as to what I was doing, I too stood and followed him down the aisle and up the stairs, where I sat down again on one side. Against the other, he was re-assembling a large green racing bicycle, his back to me. When he was done, he turned to hold the bike steady just as the train pulled in to Princeton Junction, and then rolled it out towards the door. Full face, he looked somewhat different than I would have thought, but not unattractive. The eyes were dark, the nose was strong, the mouth….(Believe it or not, I’ve run out of affirmative adjectives.) As he passed me, the only other passenger in that part of the car, our eyes met. Just for a moment he saw me. But he didn’t see me. What he saw was of no interest to him, and I hadn’t thought it would be, nor would I have wanted it to be. (Whatever I am, I’m no fool.) I had no time to be embarrassed. He looked away, was out of the car, on his bike and into the cold drizzle, pedaling towards his real life, whatever it was, before I stepped onto the platform.

Young people don’t know this stuff about old people. They feel it all belongs to them, because their bodies are gorgeous (even if they think they aren’t), and their skin is taut, and they move so easily, so quickly, so gracefully. But it doesn’t belong just to them, and they’ll find out, if they live long enough. Some older women may claim I’m wrong, and good riddance, but that’s sour grapes, I think. (What do you suppose hormone replacement therapy is for?) And I bet there isn’t an older man alive who believes desire is only for the young.

I could have just written about the cello concert and kept all the rest of it to myself, but the cello concert was only one part of my Sunday. And if I had to choose between the two parts, I ‘m not sure which I’d pick. It doesn’t matter that the object of my desire will never know, or want to reciprocate. It may be sad that I’m old, but it’s great that I feel.

I’m still alive! And who wouldn’t choose that?

RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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Just when I realized I’m exactly 83 1/2 today  — it sounds awful to me, too — this book fortuitously arrived.  Donald Hall is a former Poet Laureate, his career in letters capped by a National Medal of Arts awarded by the president.  He doesn’t write poetry any more. He says in his new book: “As I grew older — collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of eighties, colliding into eighty-five — poetry abandoned me.”

Now he writes essays, very slowly — because for him:

[t]he greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting….Revision takes time, a pleasing long process.  Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty. Writing prose, I used to be a bit quicker. Maybe I discovered more things to be persnickety about. Most likely age has slowed down my access to the right word….Really, I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

But at last we have fourteen of these slowly simmered pieces gathered together in a slim little book called Essays After Eighty.  I was about to go out for a walk, the weather having magnanimously permitted such an outing, when it showed up in my mailbox. (Not actually a surprise; I did order it.) I turned right around and went back home to look inside.

In just 134 pages — I said it was slim — you can find Hall’s thoughts on looking out the window, on writing essays after eighty, on the three beards he’s had in his life, on death, on physical malfitness (his own), on garlic, on fame (his own and others), and on the human condition. Yet it’s not sad at all. To give you a taste, let me quote from the end of “Three Beards,” not because I admire beards and grubbiness — don’t imagine for a minute that either are “right up my alley” — but because I find invigorating the resurrection of his will to live to the hilt, in his fashion, after the premature death at 47 of his truly beloved wife, Jane Kenyon. On my half-year birthday today, I really need to read stuff like this:

Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.”  Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover.  Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl.  After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind….”I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning, we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.

After seven weeks Pearl ended things. Before I received my dismissal, we lay in the backyard sunning, and she suggested I grow a beard. She had seen book jackets. “You’ll look Mephistophelian,” she said. That’s all I needed. It suited me again to change the way I looked because the world had utterly changed. I mourned Jane all day every day, and acknowledged her death by the third beard and the girlfriends. Some entanglements ended because I was needy, others because of adultery or my gradual physical disability. A California friend and I commuted to visit each other for more than a year. She diminished my beard by trimming it into a goatee, getting me to smooth my cheeks from sideburns to mustache and chin. After dozens of assignations amassing airline mileage, we decided we had had enough. I grew the big beard back.

A dozen years ago I found Linda and love again. We live an hour apart but spend two or three nights a week together.  She is an Old Lady of the Mountain in her bone structure, with pretty dimples. She is tender and as sloppy as I am. She abjures earrings, makeup and dresses; she wears blue jeans and yard-sale shirts. Combs and brushes are for sissies. We watch movies, we read Edith Wharton to each other, and we travel. In 2002 we impulsively flew to London, and later we took many trips for poetry readings without ever combing our hair.

When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches. The hair on my head grew longer and more jumbled, and with Linda’s encouragement I never restrained its fury. As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly toward the grave, I make certain that everyone knows — my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows — that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.