Grammy Fashion for the Grammyish Set

I don’t know about you, but I’m addicted to watching the red carpet at the awards shows. I love fashion and live vicariously through these telecasts, knowing that I won’t ever be invited to an event requiring a designer gown and being way past my prom dress days. But I have to say that I am just a little bit bored by all the cleavage that seems to be so in vogue this season.

madonna-bum-flash-grammy-awards-2015-1423478898-view-0And I am more than a  little bit horrified by the ways some older women who should know better persist in thinking that anyone wants to see their derrieres (I’m looking, or rather not looking at you, Madonna). Yes, many of us over fifties work out, hope to have a great yoga butt and strong thighs, blah blah blah… but really? It just strikes me as a bit pathetic to feel that this is necessary/acceptable/interesting/whatever.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that “mature” attendees need to dress in “mother of the bride dresses.” Jane Fonda certainly showed off her toned body in this amazing grammys-2015-jane-fondagreen jumpsuit.  (I’m pretty sure she’s had some work done, and I’m not crazy about the helmet hair, but props to the queen of workout videos for keeping it classy).

But after all, especially at the music award shows, it is often about sexy and edgy rather than Met gala or society wedding. Nonetheless, in my book, the coolest, sexiest lady of them all this year was Annie Lennox, who gave an incredible performance, first on the red carpet when she eschewed the hype and then … in her characteristic style… when she let her talent rather than her boobs or butt do the talking on stage. At age 60 she is one hot tamale! Let her “put a spell on you”:

I’m Going to Live Like a Dog … Or a Goose

Every morning between 6:30 and 7:00 a passel of geese squawk noisily as they fly over my bedroom, presumably commuting from their riverbank home on the Potomac to the corporate campuses and golf courses where they congregate during the workday. For twenty-one of the last twenty-three September morns their honking has signaled that it is time to begin my own trek to work. Like them, I returned to Great Falls at dusk, only to repeat the pattern at the break of the next day. We are all creatures of routine after all.

But now I have retired, and if I am not already up and out of bed their beating wings and loud exhortations to stay in formation and flap harder suggest that it is time to get some coffee and my iPad in preparation for a leisurely catch up on the world’s doings overnight. I no longer need to find and work to keep my place in the human version of the goose pecking order made visible in their aerial V. Geese can live between ten and thirty years depending upon their circumstances, so perhaps some of the same birds are flying over me as were young when I moved in. I wonder, can geese retire, and what happens to them if they do? Do they get to stay back at the water’s edge with the goose version of social security, meals on wings and senior discounts at the marsh grass feeding area? Are they left in charge of the goslings or just abandoned after they can no longer contribute to the working age flock?

Questions like these about aging, longevity and vibrancy have hung over me like a shroud these last few weeks as I inch closer to the dreaded birthday that signifies that I am officially “old.” I don’t feel old, and most people are kind enough to say that I don’t look my age. I don’t really want to be young; I’m “comfortable in my own skin,” as they say, even if it does sag. But being classified as “old” puts things in perspective and forces me to consider big, philosophical questions that are hard. How much time do I have left, and what do I want to do with it? What is the right balance between living now and providing for a possibly lengthy dotage? What is the definition of “quality of life?” How will it change as I age?

Ever since my beloved terrier Sydney passed in March and his younger, devoted (if bratty) companion Addie had her own bout with cancer in May, I have become acutely aware that time is relative. I never used to think about a day as a unit of time in a dog’s life, busy and unconsciously living, selfishly perhaps, according to my own sense of what sunrise to sunrise meant in the 80 or so years that I might be expected to inhabit this earth. I know that Addie and Sydney have been loved, cared for and treated with patience in their infirmity — even if I was not always as sensitive as I should have been to the meaning of each day of their so abbreviated lives. Now I understand that a day in a dog’s life really does equal a week in mine, and I need to make each one count. Retirement has allowed me to insure that Addie has an adventure nearly every day, that I don’t waste whatever remains of her time at my side.

I’m trying to extrapolate this epiphany to my own activities. Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned physician and public health advocate so associated with the Affordable Care Act, has a riveting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic explaining in detail why he wishes to die at age 75. Now 57 and in good health, he makes a compelling case for letting nature take its course after 75 rather than prolonging what is usually a debilitated and diminished endgame. He points out that while each of us think we might be one of the outliers who remains vital and productive until well into our 90s, the reality is that most of us will spend our old age in increasing physical and cognitive incapacity. Therefore, for him, setting a deadline by which he will have accomplished his life goals and will thereafter refuse all but palliative care is liberating rather than depressing. He will live as long as nature or God intends, but without benefit of modern medicine after age 75, except for the alleviation of pain.

When I think about this stance toward mortality as someone just hours from my 65th birthday, I come to the conclusion that I should live life like a dog, imagining each day as more precious than I have heretofore and assuming my lifespan to be just ten more years — Emanuel’s age 75 and the average lifespan of a canine. I am in excellent health and spirit and I love deadlines, so thinking that the next decade is all that I have focuses my mind and banishes indecision about which pleasures to partake of and which adventures to seek. Like Emanuel, I am not advocating hedonism in the meantime — that “We are all going to die anyway so why not eat that extra cupcake” mentality. I will continue to live a healthy lifestyle, not just because it gives me pleasure to be fit, but as an act of social responsibility. I won’t squander my limited but nonetheless ample resources on consumerism, but I will have the kitchen cabinets repainted because they need a refresh and because it will make me even happier to walk into my kitchen in the morning. I won’t get a facelift or a tummy tuck, but I will continue to spend a hefty sum on my hair. I’m giving my thirteen-year-old still perfectly working car to my daughter and buying a brand new one, because, well, because she needs one and I want one. I’ll spend the next ten years traveling as much as I possibly can, while I still can. I want to live to see grandchildren and to enjoy watching my daughters become mothers. I want to read, and write and cook to my heart’s content, but I am sick to death of cleaning and as soon as I can afford it I will pay someone else to do most of it for me. Money is really only useful when it buys survival, security or experiences, and while the temptation is to hoard it for the for the first two, with my ten year perspective and my newfound dog brain I want to use it for living, not staving off dying.

Geese and dogs have much to teach. Both are extremely loyal, the birds mating for life and the canines closely bonded to their pack, whether human or other. Both have strong nurturing tendencies in each gender, sharing the care of young (remember that old adage “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”). Both like to work and love to play, being social creatures with the ability and intelligence to learn and to participate in complex interactions. As far as we know, despite their ability to feel jealousy, affection, sorrow and many other so-called “human” emotions, neither geese nor dogs have a dread of their own mortality. They can plan, but not for IRAs or 401(k)s or tax deductions. They do not live in the future. Whether my remaining lifespan matches that of a dog or a goose, I will try to be more like them, staying mindful of the now, of the ever-present “here” and enjoying the company of others. In my experience, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and I do love a wild goose chase! Wish me luck.

“Reboot” … for Shannon Whitworth

IMG_1238Twenty plus years ago I found a pair of red cowboy boots in a consignment store that just had to be mine.  As a teacher in a relatively conservative private school with a strict dress code (also then attended by my preteen and early teen fashion forward and highly constrained daughters) I was supposed to be setting an example, acting as a role model. I did that by wearing Laura Ashley dresses, pearls and those red cowboy boots. They actually seemed just right with everything, and I lived in them until they finally died quite a few years later. I had forgotten about them until about a year ago. A former student of mine (who also happens to be the daughter of my headmaster at the time of my none too subtle rebellious statement of anti-authoritarian individualism) was playing a gig at a local music venue. I hadn’t seen her in at least 15 years, but I had supported her Kickstarter project to fund an album. When she saw me, we shared a hug and the first thing she said after “You look fabulous” was “those red cowboy boots! I’ll never forget them!” When I saw these red Ariat boots on special online while looking for discounted booties for my upcoming trip to Italy, I knew I had to have them. They are so comfy, so indestructible, so ME that they might just be going to Italy instead of the staid black booties I also purchased. After all, they go with everything, especially my gioia di vivere, or joie de vivre in Italian. Thanks Shannon, for reminding me how much I loved those boots and for sharing your beauty and talent with the world.

You can sample Shannon’s amazing, sultry, gorgeous voice here. Better yet, go to iTunes and download some of her stuff, and tell her I sent you 😉

This is What Medicare Looks Like

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My Medicare card just arrived in the mail, sparking a variety of responses. Relief that soon I will no longer be paying my very expensive monthly COBRA bill. Delight that I will now be able to rejoin Kaiser Permanente after a seven-year stint elsewhere. Anxiety over the fact that I am now officially considered to be an old person.

Aging gracefully is an art. Women (and men) who try too hard to look like they did twenty years earlier strike me as foolish. Men (and women) who want their partners to look like they did twenty or thirty years ago strike me as despicable/disposable. (See this wonderful article by Robin Korth in the Huffington Post about this very topic.)

My goal is to remain elegant, strong, hale and hearty. Serendipity brought me good genes. I supplement my good fortune with a commitment to a rigorous physical fitness regimen and a healthy lifestyle. Nonetheless, no number of crunches or warrior twos will keep my fair skin from losing some of its tautness, but well chosen clothing and a continued zest for living can give me the radiance that came so naturally in my younger years.

I’m actually in better shape now than I was in my forties and fifties, brought about by a bout four years ago with piriformis syndrome, an excruciatingly painful condition that I vowed never again to experience. Once I could get up off the floor and walk more than a few paces without Advil and curse words, I went to a rehab specialist/personal trainer, who “fixed” me. In the process he got me addicted to working out and doing yoga; if I go three days without either a gym session or a vinyasa class I feel physically and spiritually depleted.

Every time I think about cancelling my once a week sessions with my trainer I remind myself that our workouts are the best insurance policy I have against future injury, frailty and loss of mobility. He tells me that I am in the top one half of one percent of fitness for my age, and that makes me feel better than saving the almost $300 a month would. And, thanks to him and to my awesome yoga teachers, looking in the mirror feels really good as long as I don’t glance above the neck. (And, of course, Nora Ephron had the last word on that subject).

Sometimes, when I do catch a glimpse of myself without makeup in the morning, I wonder who the hell that old hag staring at me is. I don’t have a wattle, or jowls, or flaccid shoulders, but the dark circles never seem to go away no matter how rested I am and the parentheses around my mouth are much more pronounced than they used to be. I’m still blonde, but I do get highlights now to blend in the darker, muddier, not quite blonde not quite grey hairs. I accept the lines on my face as evidence that I have seen a full range of human experience and chosen to persevere in the face of personal challenges. I have no interest in Botox or fillers, no desire for a tummy tuck or a knee lift. Concealer, a bit of mascara and I’m ready for the real secret to staying young: finding the daily balance between savoring the moment and continuing to set goals for myself.

My yoga practice keeps me robust and graceful, and more importantly centered. It has become a cliché that it’s not about the destination but the journey. For me, the journey takes me back to the “aha” moment I experienced shooting a bucket of balls into the lacrosse net for hours on end until I could target particular gridlines in the net. Or the split second burst of nirvana in midair knowing that I was going to nail the entry on my pike with a half twist low board dive. Achieving a new yoga asana through a combination of athleticism, determination, proprioception and practice, practice, practice fills me with gratitude for the breath that each new day brings. Knowing that I can count on my body to hold me up frees the rest of me to reach for improvement in other ways; I’m working on being more patient, more loving, more forgiving.

When it comes right down to it, I am lucky to be “old,” let alone in fine fettle. With luck I will grow to be as ancient as my 94-year-old father, inspirational as he is setting new physical goals for himself each day as he recovers from a recent medical crisis. As he put it, “As long as I keep improving, I am happy to be alive.” Word.


The Year in Review

It’s been a year since my retirement after nearly thirty years of classroom teaching and school administration. While this last weekend in June may not be New Year’s Day, it is nonetheless time for taking stock and setting goals for the coming year. Nearly all of my friends and acquaintances advised me to take a year off, to just chill out, before setting big goals and expecting to chip away at my bucket list, but I didn’t believe them. I think the karma gods figured out right away that I was now available for all sorts of unplanned speed bumps on the road to a new life phase; let’s just say that it’s been an eventful year. Let the record show that those who warned me were right and I was wrong!

So what have I learned?

1) Just because I don’t have to get up at o’dark thirty to go to work doesn’t mean my animals think I should sleep in, even though I don’t go to bed at 9:30 anymore.

2) It’s a lot easier to eat well and to exercise well and often without the daily grind of working full time.

3) As an introvert, I sometimes have to remember to get outside of my own head and interact with people other than my partner, and then I have to do something about it, which I mostly have, but there is room for improvement.

4) I don’t seem to have much in common with a lot of the people my own age. I am the oldest person in most of the new adventures I’m involved with, and that’s just fine.

5) While I miss the actual act of teaching — interacting with kids, thinking up new ways to present material, mentoring students and younger colleagues — there are big parts of being a K-12 teacher that became more and more onerous in recent years. I am delighted to never again have to:

o   Write another report card comment

o   Explain in person or on some idiotic online form that no one ever reads “how I’ve developed myself professionally this year”

o   Sit through another faculty meeting

o   Post an assignment in yet another format on yet another piece of crap software

o   Endure being told that I am blunt and intimidating because I have decades of experience and am not afraid to say what I think

6) Maybe I just need some space, but the book I wanted to write about the state of contemporary American education is the furthest thing from my mind right now.

7) Finally, having the time to deal with all the junk I’ve accumulated — both physical and virtual — doesn’t mean it’s actually any fun to sift through it and, as they say, “deaccession” (except for most of the work clothes, which went to Goodwill immediately).

So what have been the best things to happen during this first year?

1) Traveling, from planning a trip to actually doing it, has enriched my life and my relationship beyond measure. Mr. D and I have spent months away from home, visiting the West Coast, Asia, New York and Rehoboth. We’ve become a well-oiled partnership on the road, and it has brought us closer. We’ve met some seriously inspirational new people on our travels, almost all of them adventurous and younger than we are, because we don’t ever stay in impersonal and/or expensive places. We’ve had quality time with friends and family during times other than school vacations, and we’ve been able to take leisurely trips to places known and unknown rather than freaking out over how many days we have until we go back to work. I know, most people think, “teachers have all summer off, what’s the problem,” but let me tell you, I used to work my butt off during the summer catching up on household chores, planning for new courses and making “old” ones fresh.

2) I’ve taken two classes that have seriously changed my life. Getting started on learning to really use my DSLR camera enabled me to see the world anew. I wish it weren’t such a pain to transfer these photos in real time to Instagram! Even more importantly, the short story semester class I took with the renowned author and professor Mary Gordon gave me the jumpstart I needed for my own writing. The reading list was challenging, her lectures were riveting, and the comments I received on the five papers I had to write for the course renewed my confidence in my ability. I nearly cried tears of joy when she wrote that she was “blown away” by the “depth and elegance” of my thought and prose. I really needed that as I began to get serious about committing to the next step in my intellectual life.

3) Serendipity brought me a forum to test my authorial wings, and also gave me the opportunity to share with three women who have become my writing touchstone. Kate and I met at the first meeting of an author’s group at our local library, but decided independently that the group just wasn’t for us. She took the initiative to start a group and before we knew it we had four committed women ranging in age from twenties to sixties and several others who came and went sporadically. We meet every two weeks to share work with no restrictions as to genre. Pieces must not exceed 1200 words and must include a word drawn at random the previous session. After one school year so far (not including vacations) we have by my count met sixteen times. The support and critical acuity of my co-members has emboldened me to write deep from the gut, enabled me to hone pieces after receiving excellent criticism, and given me a sense of community and grounding in what can be a lonely or overly narcissistic endeavor.

What have been the biggest challenges of this first year of retirement?

1) Without question, health issues have been major stressors, even though none of them have been my own:

o   My father’s wife’s death after an arduous battle with ovarian cancer

o   My father’s own frailty and ultimate health crisis and recovery

o   Mr. D’s very unexpected pacemaker implantation

o   My brother’s bout with colon cancer

o   My sweet elder dog Sydney’s cancer recurrence and consequent euthanasia

o   My feisty middle aged terrier’s thyroid cancer surgery

Can I tell you how much I loathe cancer?

2) It’s taken a long time to let go of the goals I set for the first year (blogging on two separate blogs every week, accomplishing a number of home improvements, consolidating and perhaps getting rid of all of my electronic and physical teaching materials, becoming a better person, blah blah blah). I’m now choosing to focus on how much I have really accomplished rather than how much is still left to do.

3) It was very hard to adjust to not earning money. This was not so much a financial hardship as a change of self-definition. I continued to do some tutoring, but in effect was, for the first time in decades, not receiving a paycheck per se. I’ve gone from being not just employed but also having at least one freelance situation on the side to being retired. I have no plans or desires to return to the workforce and feel fine now, but those first few months were anxiety producing.

So what’s next?

I’m much less future oriented and much more present in the now than I used to be. My goals are simpler. I want to

o   Be able to hold a handstand in the middle of the room by my birthday

o   Work through the tutorials on the photography program Lightroom5

o   Spend quality time with my remaining terrier now that I have a sense of her mortality

o   Freeze fresh sweet corn and can fresh tomatoes

o   Post on my blogs at least once every two weeks

o   Clean out the garage and the carriage house

o   Get the tile and floor jobs done, preferably by paying someone else to do them

o   Read more

This past year has been one of the best of my life, even though the challenges have been many. I’m looking forward to each day as it comes, and I can honestly say that retiring when I did was one of the best decisions I have ever made!

On a Lark

I am a lark and my partner Mr.D is an owl. It’s not because I am as happy as a lark, or because he is as wise as an owl, although both clichés fit. As far as I know, Facebook hasn’t yet had a quiz to determine which bird one is, and if one popped up in my news feed I’d be afraid to take it after finding out that if I were a dog I’d be a pit bull.

Nope, it’s all about our circadian rhythms. I’m a morning person even now, in retirement. I’m up and at’em at first light, down in the kitchen brewing coffee, cooing at the cats rubbing my legs and feeding the goofy terrier who is ineptly balancing on her hindquarters in anticipation of breakfast. By 10:30 PM I am past ready for bed, savoring appropriating the entire mattress acreage to myself before one, two or three other beings claim their fair share. Dan, by contrast, routinely sleeps until 9:00 AM and goes to bed closer to midnight. He is in charge of letting the dog out for a last pee and insuring that both cats are inside, safe from marauding foxes and prevented from terrorizing small sleeping animals and birds. (PS — Mr.D got Great Dane on the dog quiz. Jealous.)

While the saying goes that opposites attract, I don’t think we are well suited for one another primarily due to our sleep patterns, although they do afford each of us alone time at bookends of the day. As we age, we each have nights when the sandman forgets to sprinkle one of us. Lying awake, listening to the sleep noises of as many as four other beings, one can sometimes fantasize about using pillows for other than their intended purpose.

It’s interesting that sleep researchers have nicknamed morning people after a species of bird known for its grounded nest, beautiful song, and ability to learn as many as thirteen other vocalizations. Larks are favored pets in Asia and I saw and heard many in their ornate birdcages perched either on windowsills or hanging like lanterns from balustrades in Hong Kong and Vietnam. Poets have immortalized the lark as the harbinger of dawn, the gatekeeper of the space between heaven and hell, torpor and consciousness, ignorance and enlightenment. A humbling charge for this tiny feathered creature! On the downside, larks are a favorite delicacy in some parts of the world, eaten bones and all, and not just by cats.

I wonder whether larks, too, sometimes have nights of fitful sleep. If so, do their minds wander as mine does, from semi-consciousness to moments of clarity? Do they too suffer from the indecision of whether to rise (if not shine) or try to induce somnolence through a combination of will and relaxation techniques? I suppose I do feel a bit bird-brained at 2:30 AM as I review every possible thing I could add to my to do list or try to recall the main plot points of the dream I just awoke from.

My sleep patterns are, not too surprisingly, often ill-adjusted during times of transition. I well remember realizing that newborns first sleep through the night as a survival instinct, natural selection having chosen those who did so just before their mothers, psychotic from lack of sleep, flung them against the cave walls. In menopause I would sometimes awake in a puddle of sweat, needing to change not just my PJs but my sheets. At the time of my divorce I spent many an anxiety riddled 3 AM hour diverting myself by working a New York Times Sunday Crossword in a book I kept by my bedside. And of course we all know about jetlag.

It turns out that one’s circadian rhythm is probably inherited. I got mine from my father and my grandfather, both of whom — like me– could fall asleep instantly and sleep through the night for a solid seven hours until their late middle age. I clearly remember Papa napping on the davenport in the sunroom of my grandparents’ house. What I didn’t realize was that he never actually went to bed at night, leaving the big mahogany sleigh bed to my Nana, thereby sparing her his restlessness and insomnia. And now my aged father has as his primary medical complaint his own nighttime wakefulness, for which he is perpetually overmedicating himself, causing a chain reaction of other problems like impaired cognition and wobbly balance.

Will this be my fate? Will I lose my morning warble? My groundedness? Will I become not a songbird, but a misunderstood pit bull, snarling at strangers from the cumulative abuse of lack of sleep, banned from apartment buildings and public places because of my supposed unchangeable evil disposition?

I think not. I’m not much of a napper now, but I can learn, just as I have learned to really let go during the savasana phase of my yoga practice. After all, my pit bull profile tells me that I’m sincere and extremely versatile, and larks are one of the smartest members of the species, able to mimic the tones and behaviors of other birds. And who really cares whether one sleeps between 2 AM and 5 AM or between 2 PM and 5PM? Whole cultures do this in the form of a siesta, and medical research has it that this is a partial explanation for the longevity of Mediterranean and Latin American populations.

My grandfather, the expert napper who just went with the flow instead of trying to change it, was the sweetest most loving man, like Dan, a Great Dane “ genuinely humble . . .extremely smart . . . approachable . . . the kind ruler of [his] own kingdom.” So, chronotype is not destiny. Circadian rhythm is not fate. All twenty four hours are there to be lived whether as a misunderstood but lovable and fascinating pitbull or a happy song-filled lark. Or maybe both.