Aside — for those with teenagers


I have been accused of painting too rosy a picture of middle age, and it’s true that I do accentuate the good. But I do not discount the horror, and nothing is more horrible than having a teenager applying to college.  This brilliant column was written by a high school senior, and was published by the Wall Street Journal. If all our children could write like this we could not possibly fear for their futures.


If only I had a tiger mom or started a fake charity

By SUZY LEE WEISS [no relation]

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself! If you work at a local pizza shop and are the slowest person on the cross-country team, consider taking your business elsewhere.
What could I have done differently over the past years?

For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.

I also probably should have started a fake charity. Providing veterinary services for homeless people’s pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.

Having a tiger mom helps, too. As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me. It has been great in certain ways: Instead of “Be home by 11,” it’s “Don’t wake us up when you come through the door, we’re trying to sleep.” But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I’ve never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. Karate lasted about a week and the swim team didn’t last past the first lap. Why couldn’t Amy Chua have adopted me as one of her cubs?

Then there was summer camp. I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don’t have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you’re able to talk about what other people have to deal with.

Or at least hop to an internship. Get a precocious-sounding title to put on your resume. “Assistant Director of Mail Services.” “Chairwoman of Coffee Logistics.” I could have been a gopher in the office of someone I was related to. Work experience!

To those kids who by age 14 got their doctorate, cured a disease, or discovered a guilt-free brownie recipe: My parents make me watch your “60 Minutes” segments, and they’ve clipped your newspaper articles for me to read before bed. You make us mere mortals look bad. (Also, I am desperately jealous and willing to pay a lot to learn your secrets.)

To those claiming that I am bitter—you bet I am! An underachieving selfish teenager making excuses for her own failures? That too! To those of you disgusted by this, shocked that I take for granted the wonderful gifts I have been afforded, I say shhhh—”The Real Housewives” is on.

Ms. Weiss is a senior at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh.

Things get bad. Then they get better.

Matthias Grünewald - Tutt'Art@ (52)

Of the factors that determine our state of mind, one of the biggest—and the only one we can do nothing about—is age. As it happens, there is a predictable U-shaped curve that describes how age affects happiness, and this course is the same in cultures all over the world: People are happy in their early 20s. Then, even as they experience professional success, make money, and have families, they grow progressively unhappy. They bottom out somewhere between 40 and 50. It is a miserable decade.

And then the oddest and most unexpected thing happens: they start to get happier, and continue on this path until the end of their lives. Barring catastrophe and disease, people in their 80s are as happy as people of 20.

Why? There are worldly factors: Child-rearing ends. Money and time are more abundant. People can look back with a sense of achievement and contentment. But that’s really not it. There is some fundamental biochemical change, which makes us less angry and sad, and less prone to worrying. Older people are simply more content. Which is good for us, and very good for our lovers.

During this holiday, when we are remembering how bad things could get for a man of 33 (middle-aged, during his Age), we must also remember that not long afterwards, because of him, things got much better—for everyone (except the Jews).

Tell me your tales of love, again

FireShot Screen Capture #79 - 'Portrait of a Young Girl Giclee Print at Art_com' - www_art_com_products_p12262624-sa-i1636728_portrait-of-a-young-girl_htm_sorig=cat&sorigid=0&dimvals=0&ui=663477f98c5b4ad69ac5114c6
Continuing my post of February 20. When I started researching in earnest, I posted this on a number of dating sites:

Tell me your tales of love. I am writing a book about the nature of love and sex as people age. It is my belief that though there is a diminishing pool of prospective mates, and that all of our flesh slowly fails, the romances we do have are deeper and more satisfying. We know ourselves better, we begin to come to terms with the beauties and limitations of the opposite sex, our illusions about the nature of love have passed, and we can pursue more realistic goals—which of course greatly increases our chance of success. We are also free of the need to reproduce (we have already, or we don’t plan to). We are increasingly sexually uninhibited; we now gaily wade where we wouldn’t have imagined dipping our toes in our youth.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have anecdotes that illustrate your viewpoint, one way or the other? I’d love to hear them.

Some more responses:

I definitely understand the innate differences between the sexes—trust me! But I think a major problem is the changing roles of women. As women continue to become more independent, what does a man really have to offer? Especially if you already have children. Why would I want to get entangled with someone I couldn’t connect with on an emotional level? Women have progressed and men are still operating within the Neanderthal mentality. Most anyway. I already suspect that I’ll need to lower my expectations, but I’m not ready to do that yet—if ever. Next life I’d like to return as a lesbian or man. 54

I will just say something that may perhaps be echoed by other women—I wish I had had the mind I have now when I was 20. I feel mature, self-assured, with very little angst about appearance (well, some about aging gracefully and trying to do crunches to control belly fat)—I am no longer jealous as I was when I was an insecure 20-year old with a womanizer boyfriend who had a yen for exotic and tame women. Now, I would never choose the “great white hunter” as a mate. 58

Very interesting assumptions. Men are visual, women are tactile. Therefore, when a woman physically diminishes, men are less compelled to respond to her profile. Men expect women to accept their physical changes, however, they are compelled to the wrong age group (younger) to do so. Again, therefore, as men and women age they don’t have a realistic snowball’s chance in hell to meet someone who is accepting of the natural course of life. At this stage, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. 60

We may now take the time to feed our sensitivities and are one with our sense of mortality. The last train has arrived and if our grasp for the brass ring has eluded us before we want the golden one (no pun intended) now. Last call, last chance to spark our depth… Women want what we want and a man without passion is a burden to a woman. No offense to the opposite sex. Women make our way in all aspects of life and are capable of continuing to do so throughout a lifetime. It’s called security in self. A man similarly secure and free is a prize. 64

What’s In A Name?

Middle age NY Times 1912 copyWhen I started working on this book, now ten years ago, I gave no thought to what “middle-aged” meant, what ages it connoted, and how people of those ages would feel about it.  I have since been told many times that it is a loaded word, best avoided.  In this project’s earlier titles I used “midlife” (eg “in midlife”) instead.  Not that the word means anything different; but somehow it seemed more palatable.  (In keeping with my literary produce, I’ve returned to the unpalatable.)

The issue is not new.  The article above is 101 years old.  But even if you adjust this woman’s 35 to 45 now, or 50 or even 55, many people would still bristle.

Why is this?  Is it an ugly word?  An ugly idea?  Does it simply mean that youth is officially over?  My daughter, 16, is fully aware that the teen years are awful and that her life will be much better when she is out of them, which she eagerly awaits.  I’d like to say to the 30s-40s people I see grappling with problems that just aren’t important: Don’t worry, soon you’ll be middle-aged and you’ll know better.  But that advice would probably taken as: When you die you won’t care.

Planting your mother


My view


Her view

Last week my sisters and I spread my mother’s ashes at the base of a grove of redwoods in a small state park in California.  She did not ask us to do this, and we were not communing with the supernatural or spiritual world.  We wanted some molecular bits of her to knit into the majestic, timeless setting.

She was a remarkable woman, brilliant and charming.  In an age when many women did not have careers, her innovative work in the social sciences contributed significantly to the way governments and organizations around the world function.  She wrote and traveled extensively.  Yet she was totally unassuming, and endlessly curious about people, places, and things.

She was also shockingly deficient in empathy.  Her inability to put herself in other people’s shoes was so profound that she had no idea she couldn’t do it.  And she was so good at almost everything else that it took many decades before I figured this out.  In many ways it worked to her advantage.  She had a buoyancy, even through five years of gruesome cancer treatments, that astounded me.

Still, she did me the ultimate favor.  My nuclear family is scattered across the continent.  As she failed, everyone assembled (we had all been shuttling in and out of Boston, where she lived, for years). She was in a coma by the time I arrived.  She waited for me.  While the others were at dinner, I thanked her for all she had done for me.  At one point her eye flickered open for just a second.  Then, as I held her hand, she stopped breathing.  Her pulse, still strong and regular, slowly weakened and a few minutes later stopped. We sat there for some time. Finally the heat started to leave her hand.  She looked exactly the same, and only then did I believe that she was not going to wake up and resume talking about the book she had read a few days earlier.

I had been present at such moments before, but of course this was different.  I didn’t know what to expect, then or in the days and weeks afterwards, as I began the impossible exercise of trying to give order to all I knew and felt. I still haven’t gotten far.  Somehow I feel there is more coming, but it will happen subtly, in its own time. That’s how she always did things.

She died just as I was finishing The Magic of Middle-Aged Women, so of course I have been trying to figure out how she influenced my romantic choices throughout my life—as a model, not as a judge.  She never interfered, and expressed few reservations about anyone.

Then came an even more difficult exercise. It is a truism that we marry our opposing parent so we can replicate the family we grew up in (though some pick expressly to make that impossible). This makes sense—you do what you know. (Because of my mother’s peculiar combination of qualities, it has been difficult for me to see her in other women.)

But how about if your first family fails, and you are making this choice for a second time, in midlife?  You aren’t replicating your family, or any family.  Does the hold our parents have over our romantic imagination remain as strong? Do we remarry our parents?

In my case, no.  Above all I look for empathy—though brilliance and charm continue to thrill.  I have not repudiated my mother, but I have learned from her in ways she would not have realized.

I do not know how this plays for others.  Can anyone help?


Hans_Baldung_Witch and Dragon copy

Hans Baldung – Witch and Dragon

It was impossible for me to examine the two Baldung paintings without wondering who this guy was.  Was he representative of his age (the turn of the sixteenth century)?  Did other painters of the time  convey this same attitude about women and age, if perhaps less luridly?

So I looked for more of his work.  I found this image, from which I must conclude that he heard a different drummer.  One with a very catchy and provocative beat, to be sure, but likely not the one clerics had play at Sunday socials.

Three Really Quick Ages of Woman


Three Ages of Woman and Death


This is another Baldung, called Three Ages of Woman and Death.  Seven ages were possible for the plain and obedient; the beautiful and vain could expect only three (and two of those were kind of grotesque).  He may have admired the fortitude of the aging; or perhaps he favored living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse.  Either way, he made clear that beauty does not age, and the aged are not beautiful.

Seven Quick Ages of Woman

Hans Baldung - The Seven Ages of Woman

The big hole in the script of midlife love is motive—we still want to get dressed up, but, biologically speaking, we have no place to go.

Though I have seen all the population tables and related scientific data, I have a hard time imagining what the world looked like, from a demographic point of view, 120 years ago. What was it like without aging, graying people? Who dispensed the wisdom, told the tales, transmitted the history, patiently endured the ignorance? (And what was it like hearing that so many babies did not live to see their fifth birthday; or that so many mothers died during childbirth?)

The time comes to life for me in this early sixteenth century painting, called The Seven Ages of Woman, by Hans Baldung, a student and friend of the great Albrecht Durer. Life expectancy then was in the mid-30s, and here you see it. The woman furthest to the right looks as if she could still be nursing. She has no wrinkles, and even her semi-scowl is that of a mother with a house full of children.

The next age after her, the figure in the back, seems to be her own specter: she’s dead. (Or else Baldung had such a hard time finding an appropriately aged model that he created a generic old person, wrapped the head, and left the body to the imagination—otherwise I am sure he would have rendered her as graphically as he did the jail bait.)

The seven ages went by very quickly; the one now the “middle” just wasn’t there.