Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Practical Guide to Aging

I'm lucky my parents forge ahead of me, through life. They are trailblazing, and I appreciate the path. They have had a long and passionate life (both a good thing and a bad thing), and are working out their own road map for aging. Their parents died at a younger age than they are now, and in less good health. In fact, Mom and Dad are exceptional; not only have they survived in good form, but they had five children, who have all grown to adulthood and had children. As I get older, I realize: this is not easy stuff to get through life with, intact. It takes genes, work, and dumb luck.

My mom took care of her mother for many years, after Grandma became less mobile but refused to leave her home. Constant caregiving took a lot out of Mom, and out of Dad, too, since he was on his own when she was with Grandma. Out of this experience, Mom gained a stong conviction (Mom has lots of strong convictions, and some are scary, but I do admire her stubborness). She said numerous times: "You kids are never going to take care of me. When I can't live on my own, I am going to a nursing home." The upshot of her conviction--and of her amazing good luck, manifested in regular bingo, lottery, and punchboard wins--is that she is not dependent, period. She still takes care of herself and Dad in pretty good style, and only recently, at age 88, gave up bowling and choir. She just knew it was time, and she handles it well. She now spends more time baking cookies (incredible amounts of them, which she freezes and forces on family and strangers), crocheting, playing piano, and working in her small yard and garden.

One of the issues they face in their 80's is losing friends. As they age, their friends die from all of the attendant maladies of old age. The last of Dad's siblings died over a decade ago, and he is now approaching the family record age of 92, set by his Aunt Ethel. Mom's 3 brothers have long since died, but her two sisters--one 90, one 82--are still living independently. They live in houses that are right next to each other, and provide caring companionship (when they are speaking), since their husbands died long ago. There are also a few cousins, from both families, to round out their ties to their childhood identities.

However, many of my parent's friends have preceded them in death. Its hard for me to tell how that affects them; they have each other, my brother lives nearby, and they live in a small community where they have been known all their life. They seem to do pretty well each time they lose someone. I think that part of their acceptance of loss is their knowledge that they, too, are on the short list of life. They have the courage to keep going, despite their increasingly isolated position--which is no small thing. The very fact of their surviving into old age gives them friends and admirers: Dad's status as a WWII vet, and their mutual status as survivors, insure that they are known and acknowledged by a considerable number of people. Everybody wants to see living proof that they can grow old and live well. Mom and Dad provide that assurance and hope, just by walking around and talking.
When I wonder about growing old and losing people in my life, I therefore look to my folks. I remember especially how my parents reacted to the death of one of Dad's friends. He and Dad were friends for as long as I can remember. They always went hunting and drinking with each other. He and his wife, and Mom and Dad, were part of a group of good-time friends for decades. Eventually, however, the friend became ill, then incapacitated, and, finally, died. I thought my parents would be very upset over this loss of a close friend. Dad went to the funeral. Mom, however, did not. As she said later without a trace of guilt or self -consciousness, "It was my bowling day and they couldnt get a sub." Further, she noted, his wife wasn't feeling well and "I knew she wasn't going, so I figured why should I go if his wife didn't go? It would make her look bad, anyway."

This is heavy stuff to sort out as I consider Aging Gracefully. Facing death and the loss of friends is not a walk in the park. However, it can be faced with practicality. My parents have been nothing if not practical, as they walk that road. They have their cemetery plots picked out, their will made out. Mom has Dad's military stuff all ready to go, to accompany his Color Guard funeral, which she knows my brother will commandeer in his role as the VFW Commander-in-Chief. These decisions have brought them comfort, let them put the final touches on their life. They've also afforded them some small source of pride, knowing that they'll be remebered in style.

Life goes on, and life's connections go on, despite the losses. There are rules to follow, even for growing old and losing friends, and losing oneself. A neighbor who died years ago showed Mom the dress she had picked out to be buried in, as she waited for cancer to take her life. Plots are plotted. Cookies are baked. Bowling leagues depend on you. Don't show up other people who are surviving. Keep up your spirits and your courage. Keep forging ahead.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Simone de Beauvoir revisited (its good to look back, despite Lot's wife's take on it)

I've had a copy of Simone De Beauvoir's classic work, The Coming of Age, for a few decades. It was first published in France in 1970. I finally plan to read it cover to cover, starting tonite. I knew it'd come in handy some day. Perhaps the reading of it was waiting for a lifespan rainy-day: my 50's. Or more likely, I was hoping I'd age and thought a handbook might come in handy. I recently thumbed through it in analytic fore-play, and find that it has aged well.
Old Age is a good thing to do, and do well. It merits research. De Beauvoir was one of the first to do that. She wrote The Coming of Age after the book that gave her fame as a feminist, back when feminists were a new thing: The Second Sex. A succint quote from that book: "Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female--whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male" [1] . Whoo hoo! Strong words, Simone. "Feminist" of course quickly became a dirty word in some quarters. I think that in the decades since then, "humanist" more accurately describes someone who believes that there isn't a second sex, but universal humanity.
De Beauvoir had interesting ideas for the 60s, thinking that old people and women (outside of tribal studies) were worthy topics of research. An evolution of "the second sex" can be followed using my favorite girlbooks: do the protagonists act like a female, or a human being? Its an interesting overview of culture and era, too.
Start with The Complete Claudine, by Colette [3]. Colette is another Famous French Female Novelist. She is famous for intriguing novels which portray the worldly-wise French Schoolgirl Incarnate: Claudine. Colette also penned Gigi, which might give you an idea of the Claudine books. The Claudine stories deal with the heroine's spicy involvements with both genders and all ages at her girls' school and through to young adulthood. The heroine's entire documented life is centered on romantic interplay. Titillating, but narrow definition of female.
Compare the Claudine stories with another classic girlbook series: Anne of Green Gables, written by Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery, and also set in the early 1900's. Anne is a lot more chaste then Claudine. She meets her future husband bang off the bat, never seriously considering other guys, or girls either (unlike that Claudine). Her school days actually lead to a stint as a teacher, which widens the role of women somewhat. But her guy is always around, waiting for her to ripen and pluck. The story wouldn't be the same without Gilbert.
Then there is Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, set in the late 1800's. (I haven't read the American Girl series--it will probably shoot holes in my girlbook cultural definition theory but I'm going to read it someday. After de Beauvoir gets read.) Laura's heroine/ self didn't have the least little romantic interest until the last few books. She is thus, on my limited scale, closest to behaving "like a human being," with adventures and interactions. Sure, its autobiographical, but so was Claudine. I have no idea about Anne.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland also has a heroine based on a real girl. Alice, unlike the aforementioned heroines, doesn't deal with puberty or any kind of romance at all. (Although the Cheshire Cat does seem to leer, do you think?) She just has adventures. And because of that, she could've easily been a male protagonist, without loss of story. She acts just 'human.' And how about Dorothy and the Wizard? Frank Baum created Dorothy, who doesn't have a speck of romance going either. But then again, like Alice, she was pre-pubescent, and the girlbook chronicles of Claudine and Anne either began in or traversed through the girl-trait-loaded minefield of puberty. In fact, Baum purposely fashioned Dorothy as an American version of Alice's adventures. So, generally speaking, in some popular earlier literary depictions, females had to be defined by their relationships with men. However they weren't defined with the female trait of romantic preoccupation until they were sexually potent. Weeellll, does that happen in post-pube guy books? I'll have to check this out. (Why do I have to? Because I'm a frustrated anthropologist. And I care.)
I know I'm loading the die here, just using my limited knowledge and examples of the human vs. female literary data. I just remembered, for example, George MacDonald's wonderful wonderful Scottish children's tale (which I read all the time), The Light Princess. MacDonald says, in the book, that princes always get to have adventures, and princesses should get to have their own. Even tho he makes a good point, his princess is girly and undergoes transformation into a 'real woman' only after finding true love. No adventures, per se. And I bet there are other sports out there. If got paid to do this, I'd look a little harder. However, I'm in it for fun and for justifying my own viewpoint. Which a lot of people tend to do.
So, I like a good sex-role-stereotyped romance novel now and then, and some steamy sci-fi or anthropological fiction (Children of the Earth has a lot of sex, but I love the series anyway), where the men are all strong and the women are all good-looking but helpless. Its easy to keep things black-and-white and define wimmin as wimmin and min as min. But Simone has a point which I love when she says that females, at least in the past, had limited definitions. No one denies it. And "things" have changed. Disney proved that with Mulan, where the post-pubescent girl heroine (although still encumbered with romantic notions) does get to have a little adventure. In the neat sci-fi movie Avatar, the female lead alien does get in some hissin' and hittin'. Lots of stories these days give girl heroines some muscle, but alas very few I think allow them to escape the female defining role of romance. Captains and Commanders, the movie about a ship full of guys having adventures all over the ocean, does a fine job of eliminating the whole requirement of romance. I hope some good post-pubescent girl story exists somewhere with similar success. Men can be manly without romance, and girls can be girly without it, too. It lends variety.
I'm not complaining. In my 2 score and 17 years, things have greatly changed. Its fascinating to think how they have changed and track the changes. Like men where I grew up, in a rural area, pretty much let women drive the car these days when there is a guy in the car with them. No small cultural change, that. De Beauvoir's quote from above finishes with: "To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; . . ." [1]. Too true. A little depth of depiction goes a long way.
1. Simone de Beauvoir quotes, accessed 01/04/10

2. Beauvoir, Simone de; The Coming of Age; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972; New York, N.Y.; Translated by Patrick O'Brien.

3. Colette was the surname of the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954). She is best known for her novel Gigi (upon which the stage and film musical comedies by Lerner & Loewe, of the same title, were based); Wikipedia; 1/04/10.
4. Picture: Daphne Emerging; charcoal, collage; by the author.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Lost and Found

I went to a nice winter's evening musical a few days ago. I was appropriately bundled in warm coat, red gloves, and red knit scarf. After I left the concert, I realized my scarf was missing and presumed lost at the concert venue. It was a nice, thick acrylic knit, easy to wear, easy to clean. Warm. And red--a raison d'etre for anything in my book. I was glum about losing it. A friend gave it to me years ago, and it was in fact second-hand from his friend. It was a traveled scarf before it came to me. I wonder if it will languish in the concert hall's lost and found, if someone picked it up when I left and claimed it, or if its trash-heaped by now? If I go back that way in the next month or so, I'll stop by and ask about it. If I don't, I don't.

A few days after I left the scarf behind, I was driving down a remote road and saw something lying motionless in the middle of the lanes. It looked uncomfortably red, and I was hoping it wasn't a squashed mangled rodent. When I swerved around it, I saw it was a red scarf. Wow, I thought. Thats not MY red scarf, but it was a nice-looking one, that someone must've let fly while going down the highway. There are all kinds of ways to lose things, without trying.

I'm superstitious, if you want to call it that, although I call it mystic. Hey, I lose a red scarf, I grieve suitably, and then a few days later a red scarf appears out of nowhere in my direct path. Waiting for me to makeright the loss. To reconstruct or replace the little meanings I attached to it: warmth, memory, friend, color. It was a cold day, no traffic around, and I could've pulled over and had a good mystic reunion with what was lost.

But then again, it was a cold day. I was on my way to somewhere, and not in the mood to stop and pick up an item that, although neatly completing a found-and-lost cycle, would after all need a good wash. So I drove past it and left a perfectly good found item to its fate. (I wonder if rodents might use it for nesting?)

After all, I don't need to replace everything I lose. Some things are just ready to go. And replacements can never be an original 'thing', although they can grow their own story. Its a responsiblity to keep track of the stories of things, and I try to choose wisely which stories I keep. The scarf story, MY scarf story, was one that was truly ready to go, as the friend who gave it to me was long and unhappily out of my life. I was happy, however, to think that small lost things in life have their own karma. It comforts me to believe that lost and found, or found and lost, things can unexpectedly come back to us. And we can choose to take them back, or not.