Archive | aging

The Color Purple

I read Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple when I was about fourteen, probably too young to understand its full complexity. All I understood was that the world conspired against Celie–and at fourteen, that’s sort of how the world felt to me, too.

With each re-reading of the novel, I saw more: the way that the form–an epistolary novel–drew on centuries of (white, European) literary tradition and challenged it at the same time; the fact that love between women challenged (and eventually dismantled) structures of male power; the joy and power that comes from finding work that matters, whether that work is singing jazz or making pants that fit women.

I’ve taught this novel a few times, and I love listening to students talk about what they discover in the novel, which still resonates, even now, more than thirty years after it was first published.

I was reminded about the novel’s power today, when I watched Jennifer Hudson and the cast of “The Color Purple” pay tribute to Prince, whose album “Purple Rain” came out two years after Walker’s novel.

I’m not alone–I’m one of millions, I suppose–when I say that Prince’s songs were the soundtrack of my youth. At the time, of course, I thought I was very, very adult, singing along to “I Would Die 4U,” or “Raspberry Beret…”  There was childlike joy in the music–the sheer ecstatic pleasure of making something–married to the very adult pleasures of the flesh.

His music floated out of dorm rooms and dance parties when I was at college in the early 1980s. College, for me, was a small women’s college outside of Boston, where The Color Purple was on lots of reading lists: all that female empowerment! On the weekends, the school held “mixers” — ghastly dances that drew men from surrounding colleges. Sometimes men from specific schools would be invited, sometimes men just showed up, but all of the men (okay, most) seemed certain that as inhabitants of a female-only world, we must be starving–nay, near unto death–for the lack of male company.  The standard conversation at a mixer often went something like “hey, how are you, my name is Jeff/Pete/Charlie/Biff…” and then after a few pleasantries, the question: “Is your roommate home?”  And that meant: would you please take me to your dorm room and let me see your little red love machine?

Much to the chagrin of Biff, Charlie, and Pete, we were frequently quite fine, thanks, without the pleasure of their company. Which is not to say that sometimes we didn’t make like darling Nikki and get ourselves a lil’bit of fun, but just as frequently–and often jump-started by Prince–my friends and I would dance towards each other, ignoring Biff’s entreaties. We danced, god did we dance; the boys couldn’t keep up and we didn’t want them to. Prince gave us permission to dance without worrying about what we looked like or who was watching; he gave us permission to move for the sweet pleasure of moving.

I haven’t remembered those dances in a long time. It took Prince’s death to remind me of the freedom we felt as we danced; the music made me feel like I could do anything.

Somewhere in The Color Purple, Celie writes “Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.” Maybe that’s what Prince wanted to do in his music–be loved–but maybe, and more likely, I think he wanted us to remember to love each other–whenever, whomever, and however we wanted, in whatever fleshly and passionate fashion we could find.

Celie also tells us “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”  We couldn’t not notice Prince–not just his purple, of course, but the marvel of the creativity that streamed out of him, an amazing gift that I, at least, thought might never end.

Goodnight, sweet Prince. Nothing compares 2U.

 

Continue Reading · on April 22, 2016 in aging, Feminism, pop culture, sex

happy birthday, gloria steinem. I wish you didn’t matter.

Gloria Steinem spoke at my college graduation back in 1986.

At the time, as a graduate of a woman’s college, I thought to myself “oh good lord, her. Couldn’t they find someone more relevant?”  It was the era of “divest now” and “free Mandela;” we’d just spent four years at a single-sex college where “gender issues” were as pervasive as the scent of the clove cigarettes many of us smoked.

Yes, it was the mid-1980s: there were shoulder pads, bad perms, Billy Idol on the radio, and we all smoked like our lives depended on it.  We thought that abortion rights were sacrosanct and that surely there would be a woman president before we turned 30, which was about as old as any of us could imagine being.

Now I’m fifty and Gloria, omigod, is eighty and we all of us, men and women, should hope that we do eighty the way that Gloria is doing eighty. Because her eighty would exhaust my fifty, that’s what I gotta say about that.

But how wrong was I—about so many things — lo those many years ago: we’ve recovered from clove cigarettes, bad perms, Billy Idol, and shoulder pads–but women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work.  Mandela was freed, apartheid was overthrown — but the statistics for sexual violence against women in South Africa and elsewhere in the world continue to rise.  We’ve seen the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S. and elsewhere; we’ve seen health care programs for poor women and their families slashed from state budgets.

And ironically, on the same day I was reading gossip on the internet researching very important researchy things, I saw an article on Jezebel about New York State’s new educational guidelines, which have been overhauled to fit with the new Common Core History Curriculum.

I know, I know, it sounds so totally exciting!  But you have to understand: I’m a literature professor. I actually like to think about things like “curriculum” and “reading lists” and “rubrics.” Well, okay, not so much rubrics, but the other stuff? Love it.

So I read the article and here’s the gist: in the pages devoted to all the elements that students in high school will have to learn about US and Global history, would you like to know how many women get name-checked? About seven.  Would you be shocked to find out that on the lists of What You Should Know there are many, many more men?  Jezebel doesn’t connect the dots they way I do, though, in their discussion of the women who are mentioned on this list: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe.  All of them are writers and reformers. None of them are, you know, world leaders.

I’m just wondering … if you’re talking about English history, I’m thinking that Liz I (Tudor, not Taylor) might be a name to consider; ditto Isabella of Span, who I guess maybe didn’t do anything except, I don’t know, bankroll the guy who stumbled into North AmericaAnd what about in the category of “imperialism?” Dontcha think maybe Queen Victoria might have warranted a mention?She’s got an entire era named after her bad dowager self.

A person could read through this list and come away thinking that women have never been involved with any aspect of world governance, anywhere in the world, at any point in time.

I realize lists like these can fuel the “what about” arguments for days; I’ve fought with myself about what to include or leave out, as I write syllabi for my classes (upside? I always win the fight).  I am sure that these guidelines are the product of hours, months, maybe years of people meeting and talking and yelling, of sending endless emails back and forth, of cutting-and-pasting and then cutting-and-pasting some more.  And I know these are “guidelines” and “conceptual” and not meant to be proscriptive or definitive or absolute.

And yet.

If I’m a busy, probably underpaid teacher (yes, I know, hard to imagine but just imagine, okay?) and I were being asked to re-vamp my curriculum for the next school year,  I might just scan these guidelines and zip zap zoop, add some names from the list, swap some titles on my current reading list for the ones mentioned here and be done with it.  Yes, we’d all hope for more thoughtful and considered revisions but I know how hard it is to write a syllabus and I know that it is really tough to teach a brand-new course, much less make sure that I can get all my students to pass a set of proscribed exams as a result of my brand-new course—all of which suggests that following the guidelines to the letter becomes really, really tempting.

That’s how “convnentional wisdom” starts, I think: not with conspiracy or patriarchal malice (okay, maybe a little of that), just an insidious, easily overlooked neglect, and then suddenly there we are (again): women do the soft stuff, men do the hard stuff; women write books and news articles, men write treaties and doctrines and foundational texts; women report on things, men do things.

Happy Birthday, Gloria.  I wish I’d been right, all those years ago: I wish you were irrelevant. But you’re not.

Gloria at my commencement

Continue Reading · on March 26, 2014 in aging, Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics

in which the universe sends me a metaphor about aging

About a week after I turned fifty (see how easily I said that?), I went for a walk on Saadiyat Beach, which is near my house, with a friend.  Here’s a question: almost all the women I know like to go for a walk. We don’t need a specific destination; we just walk. But ask a man to go for a walk and he’ll say “where?”  Why is that?

Anyway, so S. and I were on our walk and we saw a turtle in the water, which is actually kind of a rare event even though Saadiyat is supposed to be a nesting place for the Hawksbill turtle, which is a critically endangered species.  When the lifeguard pulled the turtle out of the water, it was crusted over with shells that were so heavy the turtle was in danger of drowning.

Et voila, a metaphor. Which of course, I used as the basis for my column in Friday’s National.  Here’s a link to the article, which I would love for you to share all over the social media universe.  In exchange for that nice sharing, here’s a picture of the turtle:

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Continue Reading · on February 1, 2014 in Abu Dhabi, aging, urban nature

On Turning Fifty

So I’ve been fifty for an entire week and so far things are going pretty well.

It didn’t look good there for a while, though, because I inducted myself into my fifth decade not only with a horrible cold but also with a violent stomach bug that had me barfing so hard and so long that I threw out my back.  All that vomit, without even a riotous party to precede it.  I followed the sneezing and coughing and barfing by peeling off a chunk of my thumb when I was peeling carrots for soup a few days ago. Left a lovely trail of blood across the cutting board but I’m pretty sure the scrap of thumb-flesh did not end up in the soup.

Fifty. I’m trying to buy into that whole “you’re only as old as you feel” thing and  “fifty is the new thirty,” but then you know what happens?  Some well-intentioned person says “You’re fifty?” which is meant as a compliment but the tone of the compliment sounds like sweetjesusfiftythat’sfreakingancient.  And that means that what’s really being said is “fifty means one foot in the crypt and for someone teetering on the edge, you don’t look half bad.”

Fifty. It’s not that old (and it’s getting younger all the damn time. Like, hourly).  I mean, there are lots of fantastic women who make fifty look good. Sandra Bullock turns fifty this summer, Michelle Obama just turned fifty, Madonna is fifty-four (sweetjesusthat’sfreakingancient).  I figure that  I’ve ridden buses driven by lunatics, I’m married to a handsome brown man, I’ve even danced to “Vogue,” so pretty much I’m going to age as fabulously as they are, right?

Fifty.  When the things you want down (weight, blood pressure, gray hair) go up, and the things you want up (back fat, boobs, good cholesterol levels) go down. It’s like a whipsaw in here as my body re-aligns itself to its new status as an AARP member (the card, I believe, is in the mail).

Of course, I have no intention of AARP-ing myself any time soon; like the plague victim in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” I have to say “I’m not dead yet…think I’ll go for a walk this afternoon…”  At fifty, I’ve still got an entire lifetime in front of me–it’s  just not quite as much “lifetime” as I had, say, fifteen years ago.

Here’s a thing that’s happened as I hit the far edge of late middle-age (or as that far edge hits me, whichever)–a kind of consolation prize, if you will, for the sagging skin and aching joints:  “fifty” gives you license to ignore the “shoulds.” Probably I should’ve learned to do that a long time ago (see what I did there?), but I didn’t, so now I have.  All those scripts that others want you to follow, all those conventional ideas about what a woman should do or shouldn’t do, all those commitments you’ve made because someone thought it would be a good thing for you to do?  Screw it. You’re fifty. Yes, you have a long time left on this earth, but not so much time that you should spend any of it doing anything other than what you think matters most.  You think Madonna is taking meetings she thinks are stupid? Nope. And you don’t need to wear a spike-encrusted bustier to follow her example (I hope).

So yeah. I’m fifty. And I can almost say that without wincing.

birthday candles

 image source

 

 

Continue Reading · on January 29, 2014 in aging, Feminism, growing up, me my own personal self, ranting

how to return or, happy birthday michelle obama

You know how when you get an email or a phone message that you probably should return quickly, and then you don’t, and then the longer it goes the harder it feels to return the call? So that what would’ve been a quick little note or a short conversation starts to loom larger and larger, and then it feels like too big a task, so you put it off even longer and the task gets bigger, and maybe it keeps you awake at night because you know you should get to that unanswered message tomorrow, really you should but then you just…don’t. And it drags on until finally one day, for no good reason, you figure oh what the hell, and you return the message and the person on the other end is like “what? what message? Oh thaaat, yeah, I just wondered if you wanted to grab a coffee or something. Whatever.”

Oh. That doesn’t happen to you?

Well then you won’t understand this weird little “blogcation” that I’ve taken. I didn’t really mean to stop writing, I just stopped. Let’s call it a hiatus, shall we? And then the longer it went, the harder it felt to return.

And I know, your lives have been empty, positively desolate without me.

In the intervening month, we’ve been in New York: family, friends, really good pizza, many museums, theater.  Saw “The Goldfinch” painting that is at the basis of Donna Tartt’s ginormous book (which would’ve been a great 350-page novel but was unfortunately 800+); saw a great Magritte exhibition at MoMA as well as an exhibit about applied design that was fantastic (a wind-powered land-mine detector made of biodegradable materials); went to the Met for Balthus and other paintings, as well as a reunion for the boys with their beloved “Arms and Armor” wing.

Then Sri Lanka for New Year’s to recover from all that urban culture:

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In Sri Lanka, there were fresh coconuts, harvested by this guy:IMG_7773

And then the coconuts were turned into charming beverages: IMG_7765

fresh coconut milk, from the coco-mouse, on the left, and a pina colada on the right. Two kinds of coconut fabulousness

Sri Lanka helped me come to terms with my impending millstone milestone: I turn fifty in forty-eight hours. Michelle Obama, my BFF (well, we would be, I’m sure,  if only we’d ever, you know, met), turned fifty already and she makes it look good, so I am comforted by that fact, despite my lack of defined upper arms and political clout. I suppose my AARP card is wending its way from my NYC postbox to my Abu Dhabi mailroom even as we speak. Maybe Michelle and I can get together at a “newbie AARP mixer” or something like that.

There is already much on the docket for 2014 – a book project, another writing project, telling myself that fifty is the new forty, mulling the wonder of Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones.  For the first time in almost thirteen years (which, coincidentally is the same age as my oldest child) I am not teaching this semester, which leaves me with lots of time to read Tom and Lorenzo binge-watch Orange Is the New Black work on my writing projects.  True to form, I am already berating myself for not getting anything done with this mini-sabbatical. I wonder if Michelle O does that? Hmm.

What I have done, however, is slowly begin to remove areas of productive procrastination – you know, those things you do to avoid what you should be doing, which in my case is writing. And yes, in fact, I have already re-arranged the linen closet, complete with using my beloved label-maker to identify which sheets get piled where. I also turned the storage room from this:

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into this: IMG_7814and you will want a close-up of this bag, which I got in 2008 at Economy Candy, the best candy shop in NYC.  I love this bag and frankly, I think Michelle would love it too. I’m telling you, we would totes be besties.

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So. The blogcation is over, the new year has begun, and a bonne annee to you all.

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Written on the sand in Sri Lanka on New Year’s Eve

 

 

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Continue Reading · on January 18, 2014 in Abu Dhabi, aging, Books, growing up, The National, Travel

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