STUPID ME

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I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.

Examples:

19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.

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27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.

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39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.

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40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.

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45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.

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Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.

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58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.

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60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.

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64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.

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65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.

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69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.

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121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.

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51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.

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53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?

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And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.

 

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VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

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A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am.  Which means she was about seventy-one when she called.  It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed.  But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading Lydia Davis or War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked.  However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind.  Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery.  Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.)  “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed.  “It’s, um, about your arms,”  she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more.  The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before.  Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin.  And the last time I had seen her upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world, especially as they had curious cellulite-like indentations in their probably softening flesh that I have never seen on the arms of a young woman, no matter how plump.

Wow!  Didn’t think I could be so judgmental?  Then you sure thought wrong.  I make judgments all the time (including about myself).  However, I mostly keep mum about them.  As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill.  Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman, if somewhat round, who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh?  Awnings of loose skin hanging below when the arms are raised?  A generally wrinkled surface?   “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question.  ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really?  Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go.  You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully.  “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up.  Or if it’s a sleeveless dress  — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly.  “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to.  You can still look good.  A different sort of good.  And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.”  But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could.  I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie.  Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly.  My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up.  Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby.  But then I never did my post-partum exercises.  Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes.  You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out.  I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness.  Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young.  Even Diane Keeton, who at 67 still looks great, has just come out with a new book that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.”  Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments.  If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen,  go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons.  It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.”  It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much.  All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his.  But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead.  If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!

WHY ME, WHY THIS, WHY NOW?

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[This is the third in a series of four pieces arising from my recent, and in some ways still ongoing, experience with an obscure and distressing skin affliction apparently extremely rare in adults.  They’re not only about skin, though.  Is anything ever really just about what it first appears to be?]

Until things go wrong, most of us fail to appreciate the ability of our bodies to protect us from the innumerable, frequently unseen enemies outside our skins that would invade and take us down if they could.  That ability is lodged in our immune system, and when it’s doing the job it was intended to do we never even know what we’re escaping.  Our bodies may provide an ideal environment for viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, but our immune systems prevent or limit their entry.  Without going much further into how immunity works, which I am insufficiently knowledgeable to be able to do anyway, let’s just observe that it is provided by a network of cells, tissues, and organs that collaborate to protect us from invasion and infection.  We get some of this protection from our mothers at birth; we develop the rest of it from adaptation to the dangers with which we are threatened as we grow.

However, even in a healthy adult, the fully functioning immune system is not impervious to breakdown and failure to defend.  Major stress can eventually compromise it or shut it down and render you vulnerable.  So can an external “enemy” too powerful for the immune system to overcome on its own without external help.  (Vaccinations are one kind of such “help.”)  At these times, each of us has a body that seems predisposed to go its separate way in response.  Perhaps this predisposition is genetic, perhaps not.  We just don’t know.

Some people are most vulnerable internally. Those are the ones who develop digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis.  Others respond with a lung crisis, such as asthma. In still others, the immune system fails to operate properly by going crazy; in the course of trying to defend you it attacks you instead:  those are the unfortunate sufferers of auto-immune diseases, such as lupus, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis.  Looking back now at my own medical history, such as it has been — and up until now I’ve been very lucky, in that it has been relatively minimal — I must conclude that my own particular vulnerability has been skin.

It first manifested itself when I was very young, with a still immature and only partially developed immune system. I am told that by the age of one, I was breaking out in hives from what was then considered healthful exposure to the sun. I certainly remember the hives of subsequent summers, until I was about five or six, when the summer sun miraculously seemed to cease to stimulate their arrival.  Those were the years of endless maternal daubing with pink calamine lotion, which dried white and flaked off, and didn’t help the itch at all after the first wet cooling minutes.  Also the years of, “Nina, don’t scratch!  It will make it worse.”  It did make it worse.  Always.  But how can you not scratch an itch?  Even if your mother tells you not to.

Then came the mosquito bites.  As an aside, I will permit myself to note that while I was doing all this research during my recent long and dreary convalescence, I discovered mosquitos only bite human beings.  They’re not interested in the blood of house pets, or elephants or any other kind of animal because there’s something to be found only in human blood which is necessary to the mosquito reproductive process.  In addition, some people seem to have more of this mysterious “something” in their blood than others.  Count me in the appetizing group.  If I’m sitting on the grass with six other people, they will escape unbitten while mosquitos feast on me.

However, that’s neither here nor there with regard to my immune system.  The point is that I appear to be extraordinarily hypersensitive to whatever hostile substance mosquitos release into the human bloodstream when they sip their mosquito Viagra (or whatever it is). The mast cells in my skin (the outer Maginot line of the immune system) rush to defend me by releasing what I consider inappropriately vast amounts of inflammatory chemicals, like histamine, to combat this antagonist substance at the point of entry and mediate my allergic reaction to it.  My parents, the first persons I observed, and later many others — including both husbands and Bill — did not have this problem, and therefore did not need to scratch a bite.  If a mosquito deigned, rarely, to sip their blood, it left a tiny red pinprick which faded without fuss or bother. No inflamed and unsightly red circles of histamines rushing to over-protect against the invader and its venom.  No swelling. No irresistible need to scrape away at the spot until it was raw. No endless itch-scratch-itch cycle leaving scabs for sometimes as long as a month after the initial bite — or, more likely, many bites. Nothing like that for them.  Only for me.

Well, now there’s air-conditioning. That has pretty much taken care of the mosquito problem for me, even though I’ve lived most of my life in the hot damp stretches of the American mid-Atlantic seaboard.  So I can move right along to the next skin-related immune system failure of my past.

The stress and unhappiness of my first marriage eventually produced — not colitis, to which the first husband succumbed (he was unhappy too) — but a boil, a bacterial infection of a hair follicle on my neck so large and virulent it had to be cut out at Roosevelt Hospital.  (I didn’t even know there were hair follicles on the neck!)  Skin again.  After the incision and removal, penicillin was prescribed.  Allergic reaction?  You bet.  Rash here, rash there, rash just about everywhere.  Those mast cells were really working overtime.

Actually, I’m not a particularly substance-allergic person.  Besides the penicillin, which no one has ever dared again prescribe, my only other known allergy is to erythromycin.  Two tablets by mouth when I was thirty-six, and rash again, almost instantaneously — all over me (plus, in this case, ominous swelling of the joints).

Okay, enough of that.  I’ve been well enough for most of my life to have had almost no experience of other later-generation antibiotics and drugs, and therefore have no more drug-induced rashes to tell you about.  Whatever was administered during a right hip replacement four years ago caused no problems whatsoever.  And I’ve already told you in a previous post about the one-time mysterious appearance of an “eczema” or “atopic dermatitis” that arrived to plague me in my early sixties during a period of extraordinary economic, emotional and professional stress.

So I will mention just one more thing.  In August 2008, when I was seventy-seven, under the blazing sun on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, I came down with a severe case of shingles on the upper right quadrant of my face. [Shingles is the disease officially known as herpes zoster.] You don’t get shingles unless at one time in your life you’ve had chicken pox.  And yes, I had had chicken pox — the summer I was nineteen.  [I thought I looked so awful I wouldn’t let my entirely sympathetic boyfriend come see me.  Fortunately, my vanity also kept the need to scratch in check.  If you don’t scratch, you don’t get pock marks.  It was the one time in my life I managed to keep my fingers away from a nearly intolerable itch.]

But you don’t necessarily get shingles because of a chicken pox history.  Chicken pox is caused by the varicella virus.  Unfortunately, after it’s been defeated, this virus doesn’t die.  Weakened, it retires to your spinal cord, or someplace like that, and lurks there harmlessly, perhaps for all of your life, kept down by your ever-vigilant immune system.  But should extreme stress or very hot sun combine with a weakened immune system, the virus will arise to attack again from within, and this time it’s savage.

It is relevant here that shingles tends to strike only the aged.  There’s a very expensive shingles vaccine which American insurance doesn’t cover but which does appear to offer some protection some of the time; it’s intended to boost the aging immune system against this particular virus.  However, as I didn’t even know shingles existed until I fell victim to it (and neither did the only doctor on the island, who failed to diagnose it properly),  I certainly didn’t know about the vaccine.  But yes, we got off the island and back to America, and again I was lucky:  it didn’t go into my right eye and blind me, as it might have done, and eventually it went away.

And now we come to my recent bout of “general viral exanthem” at the age of eighty-two, pushing eighty-three — and to the three-pronged question with which I began:  “Why me, why this, why now?”  I’ve already provided a possible, and to me plausible, answer to part of this question:  I succumbed to this particular virus because it attacks the skin and because my Achilles heel has been, throughout my life, my skin.  The real thrust of the question, however, is why now?

One of the interesting things I learned about “general viral exanthem” is that it manifests itself almost exclusively in very young children. Rarely, if at all, in adults.  There are pictures of a four-year old boy online whose face and skin looked exactly like mine (except that he, poor little thing, had it inside his mouth, too).  Very young children have not-yet fully developed immune systems.

That observation seems to me related to why, as a person whose immune system functioned extraordinarily well throughout much of my adult life  — almost too well in the zeal with which it released inflammatory histamines to annihilate invaders of my skin once its outer barrier had been breached — I succumbed to stress-induced eczema in my early sixties and shingles at seventy-seven.  Research has shown,  although it’s evident anyway, even without the data produced by “research,” that the aging process reduces immune response capability.  The elderly succumb to more infections, more inflammatory diseases, more cancer.  Just by way of example, the thymus — which produces T cells to fight off infection — begins to atrophy with age and produces fewer T cells.  Glutathione, the body’s most powerful antioxidant and detoxifying agent, is at its optimal level when you’re 20.  After that, natural production (in the liver) drops by roughly 10% per decade.  By the time you’re 60, you’re producing only a bit over half the amount you had when you went to college.  By my age, less than that.  A compromised liver (like mine) will generate even less.

So a virus to which I might have been impervious at forty or fifty was able to lay me, and my skin, painfully and annoyingly low for three weeks.  Yes, the mast cells still did a great histamine-and-itch production job in trying to burn out the invader, but I still wish the virus had been unable to gain a foothold in the first place, so they hadn’t had to.

I concede, reluctantly, that aging is inevitable. Nonetheless, it seems to me that there are still things one can do to slow down its inroads on one’s immune system so as to keep from feeling really crappy — in whatever special way “crap” manifests itself in you — for as long as possible.  One is evidently to optimize the workings of the immune system in every way one can.  The other is to reduce the number of adversaries in one’s immediate environment with which the aging immune system has to contend on a day-to-day basis, thereby reducing the strain and burden on its overtaxed resources so that some reserve power remains for halting both minor and major health problems before they make themselves at home in your body.  A very large subject, which I will touch on briefly next time.

 

SOME THINGS TO SAY WHEN GETTING OLD GETS YOU DOWN

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I’ve noticed bloggers like lists.  Here’s a list of five tried-and-true cliches to fall back on when it all seems too much.  Will they make you feel better?  Who knows?  But they’ll give you something else to think about for a while.  Every little bit helps.

1.  “Why me, O God?”  Hurl yourself onto the nearest mattress and shake a fist at the ceiling.  You can even shed a few tears if you want, although you probably won’t. You’ll feel too silly.  Don’t worry; nobody’s looking.

2.  “Old age isn’t for sissies.”  I offered this as a “reply” to a sixty-six-year-old blogger with a lot on her plate who lives In England; she liked it so much she told her ninety-seven-year-old mother about it.  Both of them agree I’m spot on. (Wonderful British expression.  Music to my American ears.) They even want me to do a whole post on the subject. I think this whole blog is on the subject.

3.  “It is what it is.” (Var., “What is, is.”) The Talmudic approach.  You don’t have to be Jewish.  It will make you sound wise.

4.  “The alternative is worse.”  Unless you’d rather be dead.  Well, would you?  Probably not.

5.  “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We owe this one to G.W. Bush, now back in Texas resting up after his two presidential tours of duty.  He meant it, post 9-11, about Iraq (or maybe Afghanistan), but it works just as well for getting old — hopefully with better results.  Feel like putting those boots back on the ground yet?

6.  “Just pick yourself up, and dust yourself off, and start all over again.”  I found this ditty  — it’s part of a song — about fifteen years ago in a movie called “Home for the Holidays,” although I’m sure the song’s been around longer than that. The movie starred Holly Hunter and a handsome stranger who went on to head up a television series about a law firm specializing in criminal matters. His name escapes me, as many names now do. However, none of that matters, because all three — the movie, Holly and Mr. Handsome — have faded from view.  On the other hand, the dusting yourself off part continues to cheer me.

Okay, enough with the self pity. Break’s over. Time to get up and get on with it.