all of the selves we Have ever been
“…many of us have internalized the message that our bodies are some kind of burden that must be subdued and transcended.” From Goddesses Never Age
Once upon a time there were no exercise classes, no gym memberships. There were no leggings or sports bras, no water bottles or heart rate monitors, no power bars or protein shakes.
Daily life was the treadmill. People stepped on when they awoke and off when they fell into bed at night. They moved to the rhythms of life and the changes of the seasons. Out on the farms, in the suburbs, or on the manufacturing floors it was called “work” or “chores.” Out in the yards, in the neighborhoods, or on the school grounds, it was called “play.” Somehow people managed to get motivated and get moving without a throbbing musical beat in their ears.
But the war-weary people were vulnerable, and they fell under the spell of the Gods of Progress. The Pharmaceutical Giants gave the people vaccines and antibiotics adding years to their lives and giving the people a false sense of health. The Wizard of Madison Avenue began to speak to the people from a new device called television infiltrating their minds and hearts with yearnings. Everyone began talking about an abundance of cheap, magical, labor-saving devices and convenience foods. The Wizard told the people what they should want, what they deserved, and after a taste, the people agreed. They began to seek entertainment in their homes from their laid-back positions in reclining chairs called La-Z-Boys. And after they finished their TV dinners the people puffed on burning rolls of tobacco that the Tobacco Giants said were healthy and tasted good like cigarettes should.
Tik Tok, time passed. Soon the people became spectators to life. And as they watched other people do stuff, the people grew in size along with their sectional sofas and flat screen TVs. They no longer needed to walk upright. Their hand held phones became smarter than the people themselves. With a gentle tap of a single finger, the people worked. They paid their bills, ordered food to be delivered, did their Christmas shopping, wrote to friends, and asked an invisible woman named Alexa to answer the door while a robot vacuumed the floor.
And still, the Gods of Progress wanted more, and so they teamed up with the Wizard of Madison Avenue who had already corrupted the Gods of the Metaverse. Together, they hatched a plan to sell more ads while stealing the minds of the people and replacing them with artificial intelligence. “We’ll create a device more addictive than tobacco. It will be so addictive and so distracting that it will rob people of their free will, the ability to think for themselves, the desire to work, or the capacity to love one another. They won’t need to do a thing ever again.”
But the Gods were so full of themselves that they forgot that intelligent life still existed where it first began--outside the Metaverse. They overlooked people like Dr. James Levine who were warning that, “Sitting is the new smoking.” People began to repeat this new mantra which angered some of the Gods. They still weren’t happy with the former Surgeon General who exposed their claims about tobacco and nicotine. But ever opportunistic, the diabolical Wizard of Madison Avenue saw a way to turn natural bodily movement into a new product, and he called it “exercise,” and a multi-billion dollar industry was created to press people into buying something the Wizard had already taught them to hate. “Ah, the power of ambivalence,” said The Wizard. “And if we teach people to hate themselves, we shall have it both ways!”
As expected people flocked to the gyms and purchased the memberships, the trainers’ time, sports wardrobes, and special shoes. Cinderella looked down on the scene from her throne in the happily ever after. Not a doctor, a god, a wizard, or even Jane Fonda, Cinderella always knew that it was the hard work of life that kept her mentally and physically fit to pursue her dreams, to dare to attend a ball, to climb in and out of a pumpkin carriage, to race up and down the stairs, and to dance all night. She still resents that her fairy godmother was given so much credit for a dress and a pair of ill-fitting shoes.
I know that Valentine’s Day is the absolute worst day to bring this up, but it must be said: not everyone in a long-term relationship is happy. Breaking up can be hard to do, and a bad break-up can haunt the initiator for years. Sometimes regret leads to attempts to reconcile causing even more guilt for the lies told to re-instate the relationship.
These types of break-ups happen more frequently than anyone knows and they remain a taboo subject among women. No woman wants her friends to think less of her, especially when it was friends that suggested the match-up in the first place. Whose side will they take?
Just yesterday I met a good friend for brunch. After we ordered, Ellen slid down in her seat and leaned forward. Her eyes scanned the restaurant for anyone familiar, and then she whispered, “I am thinking of ending my relationship.” I wasn’t surprised. I had heard her voice disappointments in the past, enough to know that this might be coming.
“Things are okay, but I am just not that happy. I’ve tried to hang in there and even suggested some changes, but nothing ever really changes. I just don’t think it’s possible to get what I want out of this relationship, but I’ve been in it for so long, I just don’t know where to turn. And will it be better if I do leave? Will I ever find someone else who gets what I want? Might it be worse? Oh, geez, do I even really know what I want?” Ellen showed me clippings from magazines she had been reading to help her make up her mind about what to do next.
I studied the clippings trying to get a feel for what she does want, and I nodded in sympathy. I had heard a very similar story a few months before from my friend Grace. In her case, she had already made the break but continued to feel uneasy about going public with the news. Grace was already in a happy new relationship but she worried constantly about running into her ex. Grace had never really explained why she was leaving; she just left for someone else. Even her closest friends only learned the news when they began complimenting Grace on how great she looked. Grace gave all the credit to her new relationship.
Maybe it’s because we are all getting older. Stability seems important. Is it just too late to change? What will people think of us? And we really don’t want to hurt anyone; we just want to be happy, to feel attractive again. What if we never find someone else and we have to go it alone? That seems impossible. Most of us aren’t prepared for what it would take to go it alone. We fear the humiliating damage we might do to ourselves.
I live in a large urban community with plenty of options. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard to find the right hairstylist, but it’s just not that easy. And we do get attached. After all, these are people who have seen our hair naked and without color. They have been intimate with our roots, and they can make us squeal with delight when we look in the mirror. Our tresses may no longer flow, and we may have even give up on the pursuit of love, but no woman I know gives up on her hair.
Well, I have a small update.
Just this morning my petite neighbor called to tell me that while she was monitoring the self-checkout stations at her current job this week, she was offered three different new jobs by three different customers. I have no doubt in my mind that, in addition to being beautiful and petite, my neighbor is also friendly, hardworking. And petite.
The only offer I received this week was from a burly, unshaven man coming out of a restroom in my local convenience store. I happened to notice him because he was wearing tactical gear and mumbling into his shirt collar. He asked me if I’d like to be a human shield. Apparently, I am the right size to conceal a military target. And I look disposable.
I did feel flattered to be noticed since most people don’t see me at all, and this attention despite the fact the guy was wearing an eye patch! The job did sound noble. And short term. But I wasn’t in the mood. I am still getting the hang of retirement, and I am too easily frustrated to obtain the right documents to travel internationally.
Being invisible may be a superpower in some circles, but I don’t know if it is the best resume for a human shield. Perhaps he thought that eventually I might have potential in the spy trade though that is unlikely. If he really did see me, it would have been apparent that I am no Mata Hari. Though tall, she was extremely beautiful and disguised herself as an exotic Asian dancer. Not a good cover for someone with so much to cover. And I am not much into stealing—secrets or otherwise. I don’t think I could ever live a double life. I have enough trouble managing one, and sometimes I can’t remember the name on my official state ID.
Even if I could overcome these spy deficits and unleash my superpowers, my kryptonite is that I can’t seem to hide my incredulity at the things people say and do. In the spy business, perpetual astonishment would be a dead give-away, and I would be the one dead.
Speed and elusiveness are vital traits in the world of espionage, but as you can tell, I also tend to perseverate which makes it hard to move on. I am baffled as well as fascinated by the irony that being smaller can make a woman larger in the eyes of others. Or maybe I am downright incredulous. In any case, I am as stuck as those last 3 inches and 25 pounds.
Then there is this other life, layered on top and woven through, the life of passion and pursuit, of my dreams and aspirations, a life of love sought and realized, of beauty and community, of adventure and openness. It is a life I always want and don’t always have…a life animated in thought and action by the hope that I shall flourish along with my friends and family—that we shall hold each up through our excellence, creativity, and goodwill, a life where we flourish together. Where humanity flourishes. The thought of this life fills my heart with love and hope, fills my lungs with breath.
--Nick Riggle in This Life, This Body, This Day, This Time, These People, This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive
I have a neighbor who is about five years older than me. Like pre-menopausal women whose menstrual cycles align through association, my neighbor and I seem to run into each other on the way to the dumpster. I don’t know if it is some biological synchronization or just the timely flow of fertile debris before it grows into something alive inside our apartments, but it happens regularly.
When we meet at the dumpster, we stand down wind of the odor of decaying food and poopy diapers. The conversation becomes a purge of trash, problems at work, and the decline of the neighborhood. The conversation winds down when one of us makes a half-hearted commitment to do lunch “sometime,” the signal that one of us is cold, hot, or has to go.
While I enjoy this wonderful neighbor whenever and wherever I meet her, I am beginning to feel some pressure to dress for these trash-can occasions. My petite, fashionable neighbor always comes to the dumpster like it is cocktail hour in an upscale Greenwich Village bar. She sparkles like champagne with her hair styled, nails polished, eye makeup just right. I am both in awe and suspicious. I do notice that she seems to have considerably more trash to dispose of than I do. Perhaps, as I suspected, being beautiful requires a lot of time-consuming work and a lot of products. I rationalize my own appearance with claims of sparing the environment from all that packaging.
What else I notice about my neighbor, in addition to her lovely appearance and volume of trash, is the way men respond to her, to all petite women, really. A petite woman can carry a baggy to the dumpster, and a manly neighbor will fall all over himself offering to carry her trash. Petite women are sexy, sleek little sailboats. I, on the other hand, am an overloaded cargo ship that has been stuck in the Suez Canal for so long that the bottom has rusted out. When a man approaches me, it is not to offer aid or flirtation. It is usually to ask if I will hold up the front end of his car while he changes a tire.
For women of my generation and the ones before, it seems like it was always a choice between being capable or beautiful. Smart girls were admonished to keep their hands down and NEVER appear smarter than the boys. To do otherwise would guarantee spinsterhood. Of course, all young children were advised to “be seen and not heard,” but there was a time-limit on that for boys. For young women the advice later became “be seen but not heard.” Be desirable but not too smart. The images of women who appeared in ads or on television were housewives dressed in fitted-waist dresses, wearing nylon stockings, pumps, and a string of pearls. A starched white apron was the only evidence of their shared occupation. These women, if mothers, deferred all parenting decisions until the father got home.
Here I am now old enough to have one foot in the grave (and I can still hold up the front end of a car, thank you very much!) and I continue to confront these messages from my past, the trash talk that shaped my life and opportunities. I look around now at young women professionals and think “Hey, that’s what I wanted!” I just didn’t know it was available to me or even that it was out there to want. Such models or examples were not present in my every-day environment. The real professionals that I knew were nuns. They taught in schools and colleges and operated hospitals. For me, that was the spinsterhood I feared.
Of course, messages about beauty and appearance still taunt women today, but the messages about brains and opportunity are not as limiting. There are plenty of women who now can claim brains and beauty. They can be mothers and successful professionals. But there are groups of individuals who continue to receive limiting messages about who they are and what they can be. To all children everywhere, I say this:
No matter what package you are wrapped in, it is good to raise your hands. Take a chance no matter what you are wearing or what nouns or pronouns describe you. Be at home in your body and in your life. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Behold your own beauty.
And if anyone tells you otherwise, well, that’s just trash talk.
“…it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us."
More of my friends have granddogs than grandchildren.
I rarely even see children any more. I drive through neighborhood after neighborhood, not a child anywhere. On my regular walks, there are no bicycles lined up at the park, no giggles floating through the air, no petty arguments with shouts of “I’m telling” when childish negotiations falter.
The researcher and writer Jean Twenge observes that a generation is defined not by historical events, though these shape experiences and attitudes, rather it is changes in technology that characterize each generation. And as technology has progressed, we have become more individualistic, less communal. We just don’t need each other as much for the hard labor of life-sustaining activities. With less wear and tear on our bodies, we are living longer. With longer life comes extended youth and later maturity. But as wannabe grandparents are here to remind, the biological clock is still an ancient wind-up toy. It ticks for only so long, and then it winds down. Stops. Makes us too late for the party.
COVID did not help the grandparent cause. The COVID years emphasized to young adults that children are a lot of work and a big expense. Young adults wonder: in these increasingly difficult economic conditions, where will the money come from to house children, clothe them, educate them, and entertain them? How will there be time left for young adult pursuits and careers? And what about the environmental catastrophes that make the headlines each day? Will there even be a world in which to live, a world that can accommodate one more tiny body in in need of a mouthful of oxygen? And so it was off to the pet stores and animal shelters for these fertile young people. What are aging parents to do other than offer to babysit their granddogs?
“Life is on the wire. Everything else is just walking.”
Karl Wallenda, High wire artist and Founder of The Flying Wallendas
Parenting is demanding. And expensive. It requires sacrifices. In moments, it can even be terrifying. It is a high wire act. The wire swings. We must constantly rebalance. As my graduate school adviser once observed, “You are dead no matter which side you fall off.” And as parents, we risk taking others with us. But parenting is also exhilarating. And meaningful. And forever. By comparison, everything else in my life has been just walking.
“Quick, I’m starting to forget. What does God look like?”
a three year old big sister to her new baby brother in Such Kindness by Andre Dubus III
Don’t arrest me for heresy, but I suspect that God is a grandparent. What else can explain that God has not yet tired of humankind?
For grandparents, the birth of a grandchild is a magic act--a baby is pulled out of a womb, and we are the ones born again. And this grandchild, this wonder, came from a child that we made or adopted and raised. Grandparenthood offers the hope that maybe we didn’t do everything wrong…maybe this wonder is a message that even if our own children have not forgiven our faults, God heard all of those fraught prayers we said in the dark. In each other’s eyes, we see what God looks like.
Grandchildren are an invitation to life, to come off the bench and join in the game. They allow us to focus on beginnings not the end. We feel young again and in love with hearts beating both wildly and tenderly. Our older years are no longer about mere preservation of our aging, deteriorating bodies. Our grandchildren help us to keep loving life. There is no future in memories alone. They must be shared, passed down, connected to new memories, memories that weave a history and define what it means to be a family, this family, memories that fashion a story that will be worth re-telling for generations to come.
While I have nothing against dogs, and I do appreciate the joy, companionship, and health benefits of pets, I miss a world in which children are more present and visible, where their safety and well-being are the responsibility of all of us. And where the joy is shared. With so much focus on accumulating, updating, and replacing things, wealth building, and saving for retirement, I wonder if only the wealthiest among us can expect to have children and grandchildren. Or will children become as out of date as the rotary phone? Where will the fruits of our lived lives go? To some lucky dog?
Perhaps I will hear all about it from the dog sitting beside me the next time I go for a facial.
Ever have one of THOSE days?
You know what I’m talking about. You wake up in the morning and you are already tired—the worst possible way to start the day.
One of THOSE days is a day when everything you touch experiences system failure. You try to pay a bill that is due today. You go on line and the computer freezes and the site goes down. How you discover that the refrigerator quit working during the night is by pouring sour milk on top of the last bit of cereal and taking a rancid bite. You go to your car in the pouring rain to find the tire pressure light is on. Road construction is blocking your driveway, and you pull out into speeding traffic like a blind woman in a pedal car with wobbly wheels.
Each tiny cut of discouragement leaves you bleeding on the curb of life and you have to pretend you booked this location just to take in the view from below. I am not talking about a full blown state of clinical depression. I am just talking about one of THOSE days.
On one of THOSE days, you lose all knowledge of how the world works, except this: you know from experience that it is not a good day to weigh yourself. You have been around long enough to know that there are things you should never do when under the influence, but adding insult to injury is what you do under the influence of one of THOSE days. You try to talk yourself out of it. You are long familiar with this particular brand of self-harm, this proof that you are a loser but not of pounds. You know you should just get into your car and start driving to a Betty Ford Clinic to address this relapse in your addiction to self-hatred, but you don’t. You step on the scale instead, and just as you knew would be the case, the needle moves up. And then you chastise yourself for having been a fool when you should have known better, and you curse the gods that gave you a slow metabolism, a hefty bone structure, big feet, and a serious water retention problem. You know the number on the scale can’t possibly reflect the portion-controlled few morsels you ate yesterday. It is all more evidence of the cosmic injustice that is your life.
You can never admit any of this inner drama to anyone, and so you try to act like a normal human being. The demands of life propel you forward into the day. You dress and face the weather and the traffic. You blast some old Motown hits from your playlist and sing along as you drive. You get to work and get busy. You engage with people you like. You solve problems. You make plans. You take a walk. Slowly, you forget that you hate yourself and the world. By lunch you convince yourself that your morning fast and the calories burned in the fire of angst make it safe to eat lunch. And you do. And you feel better still. And the work day ends, and you realize that slowly, while you weren’t looking, one of THOSE days became a GOOD day. You offer thanks to the Great Day Trader who gave you a better day than the one with which you began.
And you do not weigh yourself when you get home.
The votes are in, and there is no doubt in my mind that we have a legitimate winner. The best word won! And in my book, it is the best invention since deodorant. It is just too good to keep to myself.
Earlier this week, in a “eureka!” moment I clicked on the link supplied by a friend who is also a lover of words, a thinker, and a seeker. Being from the school of If You Can Name It, You Can Tame It, I am thrilled to have a name for the disease that has overtaken society and an answer to my incessant question, “What the hell just happened?” I feel like a scientist who has spent a lifetime looking down into a microscope or up into the sky and who suddenly arrives at a cosmic breakthrough.
What I don’t understand is how this has stayed so quiet. Why hasn’t the inventor rocketed to fame? Applause please for Cory Doctorow and the American Dialect Society word of the year: enshittification.
I am no John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman, but my take on economics is that unchecked capitalism moves toward greed and corruption. There are no “free markets” where supply is created by demand. The suppliers psychologically and physically manipulate us into “demanding” their products and services. This is why we need government—to keep us all socially responsible, but enough about online platforms and the state of the economy and American politics. I am bringing this new word of the year into common use to include anything that once was good but has been degraded by negative social forces.
Like a kid who just learned the power of dirty words, I find opportunities everywhere to use my new vocabulary. Scrabble anyone? My children will be pleased to know that I am finally replacing the F word in my daily speech, something else that has gone to ruin as I age in this time of general degradation. If you knew me in the past, you might think I am a prisoner of war making coerced statements, but no, it’s really me, another case of the rot done by technology.
Enshittification. Say it once more with feeling! We know what we’ve got. Or what’s got us. Get out some hand sanitizer. Put on some gloves. Let’s clean up this mess!