Cakes, Cold Cream, and Aging in Life & Literature

When our hair turned gray, it was a fun thing:  we defied society by not dyeing it.

Then we stopped looking in the mirror.

The worst thing about aging is the number, though the number of candles on the cake does not correspond to my age.  I insist on cupcakes.  “Someone left the cake out in the rain,” Richard Harris sings in the baffling “MacArthur Park.”  It is supposedly about a breakup, but I think of birthday cake.

The sun and genes have done their work on me.  Squinting on long bicycle trips crinkled my face and the sun striated the back of my hands.   Days at the spa, beauty parlor, and the gym might help, but one can’t reverse aging.  That said, I am grateful that my friends have also aged.  When I see their pictures on Facebook, I think, “It’s not just me!  We’re all the same age.”

Hollywood actresses must strive to be young, even if it means plastic surgery, boob jobs, and crash dieting.  In 2015, a  film critic attacked Carrie Fisher (then 58) for looking too old as Princess Leia in Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  As Fisher said on Twitter, “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well or not. Unfortunately, it hurts all three of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.”

Carrie Fisher

Avoiding the mirror is my favorite remedy for aging, but on a rare trip to the dermatologist, the doctor prescribed what I call a “miracle cream” to unplug pores and smooth out wrinkles. When I remember, I smear it on before I go to bed.  It’s like having a lucky charm.  In my mind it helps!  I don’t look too closely.

Girls and women in literature often use miracle creams, anxious as they are to beautify themselves.  In Maud Hart-Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy series, which I read over and over as a child, Betsy tries a facial cream (perhaps for freckles?  I can’t remember), but is doubtful about the results.

In  “Under the Blue Sky of Iowa,” an essay in Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, this brilliant Japanese writer describes a month of culture shock in the International Writing Program with a large group of writers from different countries.  On a weekend trip to Minneapolis, she shares a hotel room with a Polish writer who slathers her face with some kind of cream.  And Mizumura thinks about the difference between writers from rich countries like Japan and poor countries like Poland.

…Ligia then went straight to the dresser, sat on the chair in front of the mirror, and started putting gobs of cream on her face.  Her face immediately began to shine.  I watched, mesmerized:  in this day and age, is there a cream that you slather on like that after washing your face?  I thought of my own tiny jar of expensive “night cream,” which I use only sparingly.  Was it possible that the historical development of eastern European women’s makeup was still stalled at the stage of cold cream?

In Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliant new novel, The Garden Party, Celia, an English professor and critic, muses on aging.

At sixty-one Celia Cohen found herself suddenly at the age when if she greeted friends only slightly older, she would find their skeletons grinning back at her. What, she would think, so soon? And she would wonder how much she had in common with those bony, blear-eyed faces. Her shoulders were rounded from years of joyful hunching over books, and she feared decay and breakage as well as her tendency toward all-over roundness, which led her to perform calisthenics every morning. If the day was fine she would also go into the woods and practice some once martial, but for her peaceful, art.

No cold cream there, but t a very poignant and apt description of our changing looks.

What are your pet peeves about aging?  Do you believe in miracle creams?  What are your favorite scenes in literature about aging women?

You Look Good!

We're not Holly Golitely!

We’re not Holly Golitely!

“It’s me,” I said.

It is not that my father has dementia.  It’s that I’ve grown older.  My hair is wild and completely white.

You look good,” he said.

I thought, Well, finally, Dad.

“You look good” is what we women deserve.  We are not Holly Golightly and we don’t breakfast at Tiffany’s.  A few years ago, my family gathered at a small-town cafe, the kind that serves chicken-fried steak and homemade pie. We all had the special (chicken-fried steak) except a second cousin I barely know. He bizarrely told me, “You could be on The Biggest Loser.”

My dad laughed and sneered.

So that’s what you really think of me, I thought calmly.  Here they were, two older men, not prizes themselves, and they thought they could judge me on my weight.  “That’s enough,” I said.

Ten years ago I gained a LOT of weight after being prescribed a medication.  So go ahead, judge me.

Women are judged on their looks, whether they are thin or fat, young or old.  Take Carrie Fisher, age 59.   Since appearing as General Leia Organa in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she has been under fire for her looks.  Here’s what I want to know:  what’s wrong with them?

Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

She lost 30 pounds for the film. If she hadn’t, think what they’d say.  In an interview with Good Housekeeping, she said, “They don’t want to hire all of me — only about three-quarters!  Nothing changes, it’s an appearance-driven thing. I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance. That is so messed up. They might as well say get younger, because that’s how easy it is.”

And then Kyle Smith, a New York Post columnist, attacked her for complaining about the weight loss.  He said it was a health thing.  Uh huh.  That’s what the studio wanted.  Health.  (Yup, take away my med with weight gain side effect, and you’ll see health–ha.)

He writes,

No one would know the name Carrie Fisher if it weren’t for her ability to leverage her looks. George Lucas only cast her in the first place because she was young, slim and cute at the time. (She turned out to be a talented writer as well, but it’s an open question whether the second career would ever have gotten off the launch pad without the fuel provided by her first. Mostly she has written about what it’s like to be Carrie Fisher.)

Good God, that’s so creepily sexist! If you don’t like Star Wars, try Hannah and Her Sisters. I am a Star Wars fan, but  I wouldn’t have bothered with the enjoyable new film if not for Fisher and Harrison Ford.  It is fun, fast-paced, and clever, almost as good as the originals, and Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford are charming in their interactions with the new generation of actors.  I only wish Fisher had a bigger role.  (Maybe next time.)

I’m not one for Twitter, but I liked Fisher’s tweet in response to The New York Post:

Ok, I quit acting. NOW,can I not like being judged for my looks?Tell me what to do & who to be, oh wise New York post columnist.u GENIUS

That reminds me. It might be time to reread Fisher’s remarkable novel, The Best Awful, a sequel to Postcards from the Edge.  It is brilliant, hilarious and grimly truthful in its portrayal of addiction and madness. When  Suzanne’s husband, a Hollywood studio executive,  reveals he is gay and leaves her for a man, she decides to go off her meds. It is a tragic trip.  But it does end well eventually…

Read it!

Carpe Diem!

carpe diem IZvk9M7DI do not mind getting older. I had a Big Birthday last summer.

It was a shock to turn 30, but subsequent decades have been illuminating.

Health?  Good.  Activities? The same.  Loss of looks?  F– that.  Menopause? No hot flashes.

And I am still laughing at The Who’s “My Generation” (1965), written when they were twentyish.

I hope I die before I get old
(Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

logans-run-vintage-books-2015“Don’t trust anybody over 30,” said Jack Weinberg during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. Psychologist Timothy Leary advised us to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”  Logan’s Run, the 1967 dystopian novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, examined authority from a different angle. Set in a future with a population control law requiring people to die at 21, it is the story of Logan, a Sandman/law enforcer who hunts and kills “runners” who try to evade the law.  Then he becomes involved with activists on an Underground Railroad escape route and changes his politics.  (The book and movie are a bit like Fahrenheit 451, though not as good.)

Now I have never believed in mortality.  This decade has taught me about it.

I did not believe my mother would die.  I thought she had another decade.  She died a few years ago.

Horace said, Carpe diem.  (Seize the day.)

And getting older is about that.

I’m not one of those people who will travel to India to find myself.

What I notice with each birthday is that I am pickier about the books I read.  How many times will I be able to reread Madame Bovary?  I hope many. How about Jane Gaskell’s Atlan quintet?  Well,  yes, I still have  time.

Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian in 2013 about his loss of faith in literature. (He got it back.)  His  description of the loss is fascinating.

I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rise and fall, the adepts of the English civil war.

I don’t feel the urge to read the cosmologists, but I did gave up on Sara Paretsky’s latest mystery.  It wasn’t bad.   I just don’t have time.

I am not yet a “Senior Citizen,” but it is closer…  Have you ever noticed that powerful old people are not called “seniors?”    What a term for old age!

The Nook and Fashionistas

Barnes and Nobles EarnsI read in PW Daily that Nook sales are down.  Barnes & Noble will continue to manufacture e-readers like the GlowLight, but they are no longer designing new tablets. A spokesperson said,

The new Nook management team is focused on managing the business efficiently so that it becomes financially strong while at the same time aggressively moving to drive revenue growth.”

Whatever the f— that means.

And in January The New York Times reported that digital sales at B&N during the holiday season in 2013 dropped 60% from the year before.  In 2009 the Nook had 25% of the e-market.  Now it holds 20%.

The Nook is a very fast, good machine.

We have Nook HD tablets at our house. We deliberately didn’t buy Kindles, because we wanted to throw some of our business to B&N, our bricks-and-mortar store.

I have found so many books at B&N over the years:  Peter Stothard’s On the Spartacus Road, Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and, most recently, William Gibson’s Zero History.

And I wouldn’t necessarily find these books at Amazon.  I’m not saying I couldn’t, but they probably wouldn’t come up on the screen.

If they stop making the Nook , will another company take it over?

But on another note, I buy too many e-books.  Do you ever miss real books?  I recently bought Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling as an e-book.  It has the original paintings by N. C. Wyeth, and I was excited that I could see the illustrations on the Nook.  But wouldn’t it really be nicer to have the book?  I also recently purchased D. J. Taylor’s Kept as an e-book, and very much wish I’d bought the real book because I will reread ait. The same with Elizabeth Spencer’s  novels:  I should have bought the real books.

I wonder if others are feeling the same way.

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman's Life & the Amanda Cross mysteries

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life & the Amanda Cross mysteries

Angela Neustatter vs. Carolyn G. Heilburn.   At 50something, I am hardly a fashionista.  If I want to wear trendy baby-doll frocks, I assure you I will, but if I do you’ll know I’ve gone insane.  I’ve already worn low-cut t-shirts for the last decade (inability to find others with higher necks), and my dermatologist does not care for the sunburn.

One lovely thing about the turning point of fifty is the independence from fashion.  You can grow your hair, stop dyeing it, throw out your designer dresses (since mine were from Younkers, they don’t qualify as designer), and wear whatever you want.

In other words, you can still have orgasms (have them daily, according to a very funny book I read on menopause),  but you do not have to spend as much money to earn them.

Independence is the key word.

So I was annoyed to read an article in The Observer, “Forget beige – meet the women who are ageing with attitude.”

If we can’t wear beige, can we at least wear black?

Angela Neustatter, the 70ish author of The Year I Turn…: A Quirky A-Z about Age, does not believe in aging gracefully, i.e., growing gray, etc.  She does look very young in her picture.

The article says, “Apart from a few “frumpy years” in her 50s, when she lost confidence in her right to wear leopardskin tights, author Angela Neustatter says she has never let age define her.”

And I thought,  So I have to look ridiculous at 50, 60, and 70, too?  Leopardskin tights do not look good on anybody.

Neustatter apparently believes aging women’s invisibility is caused by not following fashion.

Although, like all women, I suffer from fashion insecurity, I very much disagree that youth is the ticket to growing older.  I prefer the philosophy of Carolyn G. Heilbrun in The Last Gift of Time:  Life Beyond Sixty.

Trying to develop a crossroads–the point at which a woman has lived thirty years of adult life in one mode and must discover a new mode for the second thirty years likely to be granted her–I wanted to suggest, to (if I am honest) urge women to see this new life as different, as a time requiring the questioning of all previous habits, as, inevitable, a time of profound change.”

Beyond Gender

“Mirror, Mirror on the wall,
Who’s the fairest of them all?”

I often use the phrase “beyond gender.”  I originally did it to be funny.  I hoped as I grew older to inhabit a genderless world. I would be the equal of all human beings.

I would no longer be Snow White or the Evil Queen.  I would be both.

snow-white-mirror mirror

The women in my family are spectacularly pretty for a short time and then lose their looks completely.

What’s a mirror?  It’s not who we are.

Since we’ve been plain for so long, aging is easy.

I had an early menopause.  Such prettiness as I had faded into gray hair, wrinkles, and weight gain.

There were advantages.  I no longer had to rush out of meetings because my sticky period had started.  I no longer had to use tampons.   All those boxes and boxes and boxes of tampons!  Thousands of tampons!   Tens of thousands of tampons!

All that bleeding.  Gone.  Dried up.  Years of too-frequent periods.  Stopped.  No hot flashes.  No transition.

My friends would say they hadn’t reached menopause yet.

I would say, Thank God I have!

Why are we so proud of menstruating?


I have always been  in favor of zero population growth.

With climate change spitting in our faces, we hope Z. P. G. will again be proselytized.

W. C. Drupsteen, 1885, snow white

Illustration by W. C. Drupsteen, 1885

In middle age, you can take extra good care of your looks or let them go.  At a certain age I desisted from the “blonding” process.  Friends who blonded their hair had  insisted it would give me an advantage.  I’m not sure what they had in mind, but it didn’t keep me young.  Certainly I had little concern about wrinkles, but apparently there were things I could do to prevent them.  If only I still bought Elizabeth Arden or Clinique and went on a diet…well, I’d look better!

My emphasis is on health, bicycling, and eating lots of vegetables.

With age, I rather hoped my relationships with men would be on a par with my friendships with women.

I hadn’t counted on the invisibility factor.

The other day I found myself at the grocery store striding up to the counter with my two items.  Just as I was about to put them down, a man rushed past me with his three items.

“Sorry,” he said.


Were they emergency items?  Wine, cake, and a carton of chocolate milk?

Was I invisible?

Why did he cut in front of me?

When I was young and briefly pretty, they were falling over themselves to let me go first in line.  I guess it wasn’t a courtesy thing.  It was sex.

Are people ruder now?  Or is it to do with aging?

Most say I have avoided this extreme rudeness by not going to the store at peak times.

I don’t expect etiquette, but I do expect manners, yes.