Sunday, May 16, 2010

My friend Sue found a new perfume.  It doesn't smell like anything she's worn before.  Me, I don't wear scents often, but when I do, it's back to the tried and true.  There's the inexpensive cologne my mother bought for me when I was a child.  There are the three perfumes everybody in my high school wore.  And then there are the citrus scents that--I read somewhere, I swear--make men think the wearer is younger than she really is.  I think that's only if the men are blind.

You'll notice a theme--I choose smells that bring back the good old days.  There's nothing like an aroma to cause instant time travel, and I love that.  It can happen with food, with furniture polish, with the exhaust from a city bus.

That's precisely the reason Sue went rogue with her new purchase.  She wants to forget the past.  She's in the process of shedding a lot of sorrow, letting go of things that need to be released.  She's doing all the conventional things:  seeing a therapist, talking to friends, keeping a journal, praying.  Those are good things.  But the new perfume purchase is brilliant.  I'm thinking it should become the gold standard for starting over.  When the past is painful, you don't want to smell anything that takes you down memory lane.

Think about it.  You write down everything in the house that is scented:  household cleaners, fabric softener, hair products, lotions, lipsticks.  Toothpaste.  Mouthwash.  Deodorant.  Go ahead.  Make your own list.  I bet it's really long.

Now.  Go through the list.  When did you start using Tide, or Crest?  Is anything connected to an old, long-gone boyfriend?  Are you still hanging on to the lip gloss recommended by the college roommate who always made you feel like the ugly duckling?  Do you still buy that toilet bowl cleaner because your mom, who was always critical of your housekeeping, brought it with her once when she visited?

What would it cost to dump the whole bad lot and buy new?  Maybe as much as one hour of psychotherapy.  Or two.  How much time would it take to find substitutes?  What's not to love about a leisurely trip through Target, sniffing soaps and tanning lotions?  Wouldn't it be fun to splurge on a tiny vial of some exotic perfume that says, "This is the new, improved me?"  Besides, when the past is weighing you down, you've got to get out.  Go to the mall.  Use those little testers at Nordstrom or Dillard's.  Imagine yourself swathed in something dark and smoky, or whatever is both the opposite of where you've been and pleasantly evocative of better days ahead.  It's cheaper than buying a new wardrobe.  It's more sensible than a radical change in one's diet. It's less drastic than cosmetic surgery.  It's so much more immediate than one more self-help book.

My friend Sue is a genius.  She's not through the tunnel yet, but she's throwing off, left and right, whatever takes her back to a place she doesn't want to go.  Ahead is fresh air and enough light to see by.  I am hopeful for her.  I am damn proud of her bright idea.  Think of me as her publicist.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stage Fright

It started with a forwarded e-mail from my brother. A group of alumni from my high school were trying to put together a reunion choir--32 years of a capella singers, directed one more time by their revered Mr. C. "Let's do it!" I shot back at my brother. Because he loves me, he agreed. But he wasn't totally on board with the groundswell. A few folks had taken this one and run with it big time: Auditions would be required, or so we thought. High standards would be maintained. Monthly rehearsals would be scheduled in various cities over the next 16 months. Participants would be expected to memorize 25 challenging, mostly sacred, choral pieces, harking back to the days when public schools could get away with that sort of thing.

Bubba ixnayed auditions, said he would be happy to sing the alma mater at the end of the program but would otherwise warm a seat in the audience. Closing in on 60, he didn't feel the need to get anybody's stamp of approval, and frankly, the hoopla seemed out-sized. I agreed. I had loved that choir; we were the best of our kind in town (not that we had much competition). I had loved the conductor. But I had moved on. Besides, I still heard the voice of my late mother, who sat through multiple concerts of roughly the same repertoire for six years, dutifully applauding each of her three children in succession. After those days were long gone, she said to me, "If I never hear 'Little Drummer Boy' again, it will be too soon."

Despite this low hum of cynicism, I caught the bug that the locals were spreading through e-mail messages, a You Tube video, and an elaborate web site. I missed singing; here was my big chance--as the organizers dramatically referred to it, "One Last Time." Feeling a little too close to the grave, I heard an urgency in those words. I could do worse than to go out singing, I thought. Still, I was wracked with stage fright.

Of course. I knew what that was: sensible, mature caution, the warning light that comes on when one is invited to jump off a precipice. I would have to learn all the music by myself; the rehearsals were hundreds of air miles away. I might embarrass myself up there. I didn't want to disappoint or aggravate the venerable old director or anybody standing near enough to hear my bad intonation or garbled words.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I'd never been afraid of public performance. I love the stage! Likewise, I know that I have been blessed with relative pitch, a good musical memory, and a heart that swells to certain combinations of sounds. No, this stage fright had nothing to do with the spotlight.

The stage that scared me the most was the one at which I found myself chronologically, the one that has claimed me and my tender psyche. I'm having trouble stepping up to the plate of the last third of my life.

I've discovered that people my age fall into two categories: My husband and many of my friends have chosen to fight aging with every fiber of their being. They exercise religiously, eat all the right foods, embrace cosmetic procedures, and keep up with every technological advance and gadget. They refuse to "act their age" and are determined to stay as young as they can for as long as they can. There's a kind of bold daring in the way they live.

Then there are people like me. Aging has always seemed like a merciful way to lay down the burdens of my youth--the oppressive demands of beauty-seeking, the competitive sizing up of one another, the striving that is necessary to climb the vocational ladder. I internalized these high-maintenance values early and do battle with them daily. What I call graceful aging is probably just a desire to let go gently, but decisively, of all that work.

Being called into action for this choral performance has created a conflict between my stubborn attachment to an "old" self-concept and the unreserved joy that I feel every time I sing this beautiful music. An energetic girl is yelling in the old-timer's ear, "I'm baaaaaack!" She won't shut up.

In fact, she has had the audacity of late to claim what she says is her rightful place in this aging body. She shoves her way into my brain and says, "Outta here, Granny! This is MY space." "Granny" is having a hard time standing her ground. She's scared but starting, slowly, to enjoy the teenager in her head. The old girl is growing fond of the young one. She wonders what it would be like to stand down and give the youngster pride of place. Will the oldster look foolish? God knows, she doesn't want to look foolish.

Yet the happy child inside keeps posing questions. "Who gets to decide your age?" "Are you afraid of me, or are you afraid of all that stupid stuff you thought you had to do to 'stay' young?" "Can't you have an old face and a young heart?" The 60 year old doesn't have a lot of answers, but she is starting to wonder if the child has a point.

Who knows what the outcome of this territorial tussle will be? In the meantime, I think I'll keep on singing, with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein II.

Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I'm afraid.
While quivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune, so no one ever knows I'm afraid.
The result of this deception is very strange to tell
For when I fool the demons I fear, I fool myself as well.
I whistle a happy tune, and every single time,
The happiness in the tune convinces me that I'm not afraid.
Make believe you're young, and the trick will take you far.
You may be as young as you make believe you are.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Full Discloosure and Another Think

About that Kindle (See "Me and My Kindle" below): I've been negligent. First it was the book club book that came only as real pages. Then it was the book my writer friend sent, which will take me a month to read. I wouldn't be surprised if my writer friend--who is, I am certain, appalled that I own such a device--has sent me the large hardback just to keep me in line. Fine. Just so you know, I guess I'm not all in. But I've made an expensive commitment and I fully intend to love and cherish my Kindle. I do.

Another Think about technology and the new age (See "The Big Scary Now" below): Ellen Goodman has a good article out today, a small portion of which mentions that people are learning to communicate over hand-held phones but not face-to-face. This is a problem. It's not only a problem because we need to learn the skill and value of eye contact. It's also just plain weird to see couples walking down the street, each with a phone to his/her ear, or to watch two kids IM each other while seated not four feet apart at a football game. Social skills and social graces may be going the way of the dodo bird. I don't miss the dodo, but I will miss being looked in the eyes by another human being if it comes to that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Big Scary Now

"I'm a Luddite," says my childhood friend, an M.D. with enough education to know what that means. She's proud to call herself a Luddite, as are most of us who resist whatever new comes down the pike. I'm so familiar with this point of view (see "Me and My Kindle") that I have no business criticizing it. Whenever I'm comfortable, I resist the discomfort of having to learn something new, something that is hard to learn and, at least at first, frustrating and unsatisfying. I still remember my glib response to a friend who suggested, oh, fifteen plus years ago, that I could stay in touch with dozens of far-flung college students, members of the church I served, if only I'd send them group e-mails.

"I don't have the time," I wrote (ironically, in an e-mail). Now I wonder whether my friend was shaking his head and chuckling as he read my response or whether he wanted to leave work immediately, drive over, and throttle me.

God knows, I still take some kind of perverse pride in resisting technology, which renders me unqualified to criticize others when they do the same. But another friend has taken the whole technological and scientific revolution personally, and her impassioned arguments have had the opposite and contrary effect of pushing me into an impatient defense of progress.

"It's not even human, this kind of communication," she argued over coffee. The more she spoke, the more adamant she became. And while I lamely offered the "horse and buggy v. automobile" analogy, I soon realized that her concerns go way beyond mere resistance to change. She believes, deeply, that the speed-of-light alteration of our culture is taking us away from our true selves, further and faster than is moral. I'm pretty sure she would say we are losing our souls.

Her passion stopped me. I saw how troubled she is by the world as it is today. This wasn't just another careless rant by a Boomer too old to keep up. My friend is way brighter than I am, conversant in five languages, and gifted in dozens of ways I am not. She uses the internet when she has to. She commits herself to tackling a new area of knowledge every year, usually something about which she has had no previous interest and may even have thought silly (baseball, football, opera). She volunteers dozens of hours a week to the welfare of others, and her paid job is simply an extension of that driving motivation.

Yet it bothers her that we move from one new thing to the next without, as a community of truly human beings, asking ourselves what this change is costing us. She resents the prevailing assumption, throughout American society, that newer is always superior. She is completely baffled by our obsession with youth and our stubborn insistence on staying young. "What? Will we all one day be no more than fake body parts?" she asks in exasperation. "What's the point?"

I admit it: I waver. One day I am ready to tackle whatever challenge the future may bring my way--my aging body, my slower brain, comfort with what I know v. exposure to what I have yet to learn--and to do my best to conquer. The siren song of "every day in every way getting better and better" has its appeal, not the least of which is that it seems to keep me in the game.

The next day I'm on my friend's side. Whatever happened to the gift of growing old gracefully? Whatever happened, in fact, to growing old at all? Now that I have a blog, I feel the pressure to post something on it more than once every six weeks. What kind of fun is self-imposed pressure, as if I didn't already exert plenty? Let my kids roll their eyes when I seek their help navigating the internet. They have no idea that one day, they, too, will feel left behind. Maybe I'll just lay down the burdens of this age and waltz into the future unencumbered.

I know that won't happen. There's no such thing as being unencumbered. Life is full of encumbrances, whether we meet the future with glee or a glower. Even as I mumble glumly about scientific discoveries that cause me to plod to the gym when I'd much rather sit with a book, I am thankful that researchers have discovered unequivocally that I can reduce the risks of life-compromising catastrophes. Even as I scream at the confounding complexity of finding what I'm looking for on my netbook, I am grateful that this little machine keeps me in close proximity to people I love. (My friend recognized the irony when she said to me recently, "When you move away [as my husband and I are doing soon], maybe you and I will "talk" to each other every day again on e-mail, like we did before you came to live here.") Even as I rail against a jet-set society that can't be happy staying home, I am thrilled to know that, in our new city, a cheap, two-hour plane trip is all that stands between me and my children.

Are we losing our souls? Maybe. Certainly we would be wise to acknowledge, as we push on, what bargains we're making with what devils. But I suspect that we're merely trading one set of limitations for another. I don't think it's science or technology that make us less human. We've been plenty good at doing that ourselves through the ages. You know: genocide, national hubris, the seven deadly sins. "Progress" and the newer bells and whistles it brings does not have the power to steal our souls. But the next new thing does have the power to distract us, even seduce us away from watchfulness over our own baser selves and the world's failings. Embrace the past or welcome the future: either way, don't forget to be connected to your own inner self and to those around you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Me and My Kindle

I've had my new Kindle for three weeks. Am I feeling what widows feel when they start dating again? I have always loved reading. It's my happy place. My connection to books has been a long, happy marriage with few disappointments. I like everything about reading--learning, escaping, being entertained, holding the book, folding the newspaper, feeling my eyes cross the page and back again. There's the sensuousness, the intellectual connection, the emotional satisfaction, everything one values in a long and happy marriage. There's nothing like it.

I did not welcome the advent of electronic reading devices. I saw them as a threat to good marriages everywhere and an insult to writers, who, I was sure, bemoaned their arrival as much as I did. But one day a friend told me, with the enthusiasm of a new convert, how much she loved her Kindle. Every challenge I threw her way she took in stride. In fact, she promised to introduce me the next time we had coffee. Good to her promise, she did just that, not only providing a tutorial, but bringing evangelical fervor to the task. "Look! You can use the dictionary!" "It takes just a few seconds to download a book!" "I love having all this information at my fingertips!" "It's amazing!"

So it is. Print on paper is an endangered species. What if I outlive it? How will I manage my grief? What will I do with myself? I need reading as much as I need air, and if I lose paper to progress, I'll need a new way to get my fix. Frankly, it was fear as much as excitement that created in me a desire for my own e-reader. There's no better way to welcome the future than to embrace the present.

My first day as a Kindle owner was a giddy one. I read the tutorial, purchased several books, and customized the screen to my preferences. Right away, I "opened" a novel, jumping in, ready to fall in love all over again. I had taken the risk and given my heart again. I knew this would work and would last. So far, it has.

Though I love bookstores, there is a greedy thrill in being able to read a book less than a minute after I have learned of its publication. I don't even have to leave the comfort of my living room couch to get the definition of a word. I'm basking in the ease of this particular form of technology. I find myself thinking: This convenience borders on sloth. Should anything be this easy? I'm already looking forward to our first trip together, my Kindle comforting me with the promise of unlimited reading options at all times.

Still, it didn't take long to notice that the thrill of the new couldn't erase the loss of the old. I noticed the little things: how pressing a bar with my thumb didn't get me to the next page as quickly as my hungry eyes demanded; how I missed the feel of paper at the tips of my fingers; how my brain seemed to be working hard to dig new processing pathways. I can't flip forward quickly, to see just how many pages are left; the "%" sign doesn't give me the same satisfaction as does a chunk of pages in my right hand and page numbers to subtract. For some reason, I don't feel as enveloped by a plastic device as I always have with paper pages. The phrase "have your head in a book" does not apply. This is a different experience altogether, and I know that it will take time to feel truly comfortable with this new loved one.

And of course, I still have contact with print. My husband and I purchase the newspaper, especially on weekends. I'll be buying a hard copy of my book group's next selection, because it's not available digitally. Still, I have started down this road with purpose. Electronic reading is here to stay. It may be the most accessible way to feed my habit in the years ahead; I am hoping that nothing short of death will keep me from reading, one way or the other. The new love is not the old love. But it's love. All I need is love.