“Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”

EstherWilliamsBWDangerousWhenWet-778x10241-455x600Though this is a remark that could be made about millions, Fannie Brice directed it at Esther Williams (while no doubt thinking that she would pledge her life, her fortune, and her sacred honor to look like Esther Williams in any state of lubrication).

There’s no message here, just an appreciation of Ms Williams, who died last week at 91. Though my family was big on musicals, I was not, and I was a lamb at the slaughter when I walked into the living room one day to see the image below on the TV. It was a precursor to the blow to the soul Jacqueline Bisset delivered in Day For Night.

Obit Esther Williams

After winning the American championships in freestyle swimming, Ms Williams made some spectacular–and spectacularly silly–movies. Not at all a Hollywood type, she married badly; her husbands took her from the public eye, and one took her from her money. But she turned her life around in middle age, making a successful business of her own brand of swim wear, swimming pools, etc.

She was known for her “frankness and self-deprecating humor.” About women who were “fighting a thing called gravity” she said it was “crazy to have a bra made out of a piece of cotton that could double as a napkin on the table. And the thongs! God, we’ve spent our lives trying to keep our underwear out of that spot, and all of a sudden they want to put a fish line there?”

Toward the end of her life she regained some celebrity and made the very interesting remark: “When you’re out of sight for as long as I was, there’s a funny feeling of betrayal that comes over people when they see you again.”

RIP Esther Williams. I’m not sure what you’re doing on my blog, but I’m glad you’re here.

Age 67:

esther-williams at 67

Gay marriage: Menopause and impotence to the rescue!

elena-kagan-0035d329b819b0edIn March, the Supreme Court heard arguments about Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriages, which voters in California passed in 2008.

The defense of the ban had to be made on legal grounds.  It would not do to say: “because God says all homos will burn in hell.”  Charles Cooper, the lawyer supporting the ban, said that the debate over same-sex marriages is taking place in states across the country, and the Supreme Court should not interfere in this democratic process.

None of the justices appeared to think much of this argument.  Justice Elena Kagan (casting a spell, above) said:

In reading the briefs, it seems as though your principal argument is that…opposite-sex couples can procreate, same-sex couples cannot, and the State’s principal interest in marriage is in regulating procreation. Is that basically correct?

Cooper said yes, it was “the essential thrust of our position.”

Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that “couples that aren’t gay but can’t have children get married all the time.”

Cooper allowed that was true, but he worried that if marriage was redefined as a “genderless institution” the focus of marriage would not be raising children, but rather “the emotional needs and desires of adults, of adult couples.”

Justice Kagan said, “If you are over the age of 55, you don’t help us serve the government’s interest in regulating procreation through marriage. So why is that different?”

Cooper said that it is rare that “both parties to the couple are infertile.”

Kagan said, “I can just assure you, if both the woman and the man are over the age of 55, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage.”

The transcript recorded: “Laughter.”  Which Cooper’s argument deserved.

Are middle-aged husbands their wives’ bitches?

SalomeHeadCloseupMost sexual research focuses on the habits of individuals (as did mine). However, more than half of Americans stay in their first marriages, and what holds them together is well worth knowing–and rather surprising, according to a large study of long-term couples (together an average of 25 years) in five countries, conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

Many components of long marriages are ones you’d expect. However, physical tenderness, such as cuddling and caressing, turned out to be important to men (that is, in the analysis predicted happiness), but not to women. Both men and women were happier the longer their relationship has lasted. But more men than women said they were happy in their relationship.

The most interesting finding was that women showed lower sexual satisfaction than men earlier in their relationship, and greater satisfaction later (after fifteen years).

The study does not explain why. It could be the result of a change in expectations, or the departure of the children–or because women who found their sexual situations intolerable left their partners.  But for some reason, women in long-term relationships are more likely than men to end up with a sex life that pleases them.

Herbert, where are you?

Bocklin - Copy

Keep hope alive!

BissonThe one universal finding in my nine years of research for The Magic of Middle-Aged Women is that women’s sexual satisfaction (though not always their satisfaction with their romantic situations)–is greater in middle age than earlier in life.  Because my sample was biased (all single women still pursuing romance and sex; and all willing to talk to me about it) I cannot offer scientific conclusions (though I came to my own).

As your blogger, it is my duty to pursue Truth.  In this pursuit I came across a very interesting article: Placebo effect significantly improves women’s sexual satisfaction. 

A study at the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor College of Medicine measured the effectiveness of drug treatment for 200 women, aged 35-55, seeking help for feeling low sexual arousal and response.  The surprise finding was not about the drug; it was about the placebo.  There is often a measurable value to a placebo; thinking a drug will work improves the chances that it will.  But in this case, the bump was huge–33%.

The author of the study said, “Expecting to get better and trying to find a solution to a sexual problem by participating in a study seems to make couples feel closer, communicate more and even act differently towards each other during sexual encounters.”

It is reasonable that someone who does research for a living would conclude that the hero was the study itself.  It did give many women hope that they would feel more amorous.  But the author was also suggesting that knowing they were in the study would inspire their partners to be more communicative and more responsive. But would all, or even most, tell their partners about their participation (“Honey, I don’t feel any desire for you, so I’m going to see if drugs will ignite my interest”)?  Would all think the problem lay in themselves, and not in their relationships?

In other words, might the matter be simpler: if many women feel their sexual feelings can be awakened, they will be?  I’m wondering about a bigger picture: the sexual benefit of middle age.  While I was writing the book, I told a few women in their thirties what I had found.  They were deeply skeptical.  Then I realized if someone had told me the same while I was in my thirties I would have thought the same: Old people are hotter than I am?  Hah!  Toddle on, old man!

Perhaps there is no way around this.  Just as every generation believe they invented sex, maybe no one will know about middle age until they get there.

All the more reason to broadcast the facts about middle-age sexuality. If women whose sexual feelings are languishing in their 20s and 30s expect better times ahead, that very expectation might be a powerful tonic.

Sacre bleu!

Late last night I surfed into a movie starring Jacqueline Bisset.  It was a bad movie, produced by Showtime, but I watched to the end because of our sentimental connection (which she is unaware of).  It began when as an unsuspecting young man I bought a ticket to see Day for Night, and spent six months trying to come to terms with the existence of someone of such unwordly beauty.  It reached maturity when I saw her on the street six years ago.  Then in her early 60s, she was still as beautiful.  A friend I was walking with looked at her and said, “She’s gotten old.”  That remark launched the writing of The Magic of Middle-Aged Women.

This morning I looked online to see what she has been up to.  Her latest project is a movie about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was the superstar head of the International Monetary Fund, and potential future President of France.  He was arrested by New York City police for improper sexual conduct with a maid.  And so ended his career.

Strauss-Kahn is played by the French actor Gerard Depardieu, who is four years younger than Jacqueline Bisset, who plays his wife.  Here’s where I started to have trouble.  Depardieu was one of the hot properties of Gallic cinema in the 70s and 80s (Bisset is British and bi-lingual).

The young Gerard Depardieu:

o-GERARD-DEPARDIEU-ASTERIX-ET-OBELIX-570The young Jacqueline Bisset:

jb01bNot quite equals, but not a match that would leave you scratching your head.

Here is the current Gerard Depardieu:o-GERARD-DEPARDIEU-ASTERIX-ET-OBELIX-570

And the current Jacqueline Bisset:

GALA DE PROYECCIÓN DE LA PELÍCULA "CHE"

While everyone cares more about women’s looks than men’s, how deep is the disparity?  How can actors turn themselves into giant sodden kielbasas and expect to star in movies, when even perfect older actresses are almost never seen?  Imagine their conditions reversed, he buff and exquisite, she haggard and bloated.  He would be emblazoned on magazine covers, an inspiration for aging manhood; she would live alone in an apartment filled with carpets, cats, and photos carefully centered on doilies.

Verisimilitude is not an issue in this movie: Bisset is a prettier version of Strauss-Kahn’s pretty wife, whereas Depardieu approximates what the rather dashing Strauss-Kahn would look like fished from a sewer five days after drowning.

The only good I can find in this is that at 68 she is still working.  And the world can still see her.

Jacqueline Bisset et Gerard Depardieu maxppp

 

Say what you like about me–but don’t mess with my women

4935740248_f95e70e8ee_zThe Magic of Middle-Aged Women has gotten some wonderful reviews on amazon.com, which I will brag about at another time. However, one said that the women whose life stories comprise the book are “sad.” I take violent exception to that.

I met every woman in the book on a dating site (I posted asking for stories and opinions for the book).  Most (but not all) people on dating sites are not happy.  They are looking to fill an important hole in their lives.  The process is often lengthy and unpleasant.  It’s not only that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince; you get excited about each frog, so the disappointment on meeting him is acute, and gets worse with each passing amphibian.  But the quest is so important that most continue kissing and retching.  A number of the women I met were newly out of a recent failed relationship or marriage, so they came to the game pre-agitated.

Who is “happy” in such a situation?  Only the emotionally cauterized and mentally incompetent.

It’s a shame the reviewer didn’t keep reading.  Women who have the fiber to talk with passion and candor about their love lives don’t sit still.  They push ahead.  (I saw: I was in touch with them for years.)  Not all outcomes were happy–where in life are they?– but most were, and some were dramatically better, and in very different ways, ranging from traditional second marriages (with much more appropriate mates) to spectacularly kinky lifestyles. Everyone thought herself better off–and a better partner–now than when she was nubile.

Sad?  A better word would be “inspiring.”

 

No, she isn’t

inside-gwyneth-3_4_r537_c0-0-534-712

When I heard (weeks after everyone else) that People Magazine had crowned 40-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, I was startled at the magnitude of my reaction.  (I was startled that I had a reaction at all.) 

My issue was not looks.  She’s a pretty woman.  (But not in the class of, say, Halle Berry, at 40.) 

060214_halleberry_vmed_12p.grid-4x2

My problem with Gwyneth goes back to Shakespeare In Love, a wonderfully clever and romantic movie about Shakespeare, shaped like one of his own comedies, with characters in disguise wreaking havoc on the rest.  Gwyneth plays a pants role.  Since women were forbidden from appearing on the stage, she disguises herself as a young man and is hired to act in Shakespeare’s plays.  From her mouth comes some of the most beautiful lines (this one from Romeo and Juliet):

The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

This is one of the few DVDs I have ever bought (to watch on a trip). Then I made a terrible mistake.  I opened one of the ‘feature’ additions on the disk, some candid interviews with the creators and cast.  I do not remember her exact words, and will not go back to relive the trauma, but she said something like: This was a really cool movie, you know, we had so much fun.

Through my boyish simplicity, I had completely believed her in the movie, had invested in her all the intelligence, wit, and charm of her character.  She shattered it.  Now she was just a semi-literate actress reading lines exactly as directed.

I hoped that with her new title she might help me past my pain.  But the World’s Most Beautiful Woman said (among other things), “I was very, very honored. It’s a huge title, even though it’s not true. I always see what’s wrong with me. I’ve got crow’s feet, and one boob is sagging more than the other.”

We remain unreconciled.

It is ironic that she is not even the hottest woman in her own family.  This is her mother, the very classy, very middle-aged Blythe Danner.  Now here is a woman who could rock a man’s world!  Most beautiful?  Not to a young eye, but certainly to a wiser, older one.

Blythe-Danner-Feet-146056

For these extra years we thank Thee. Now what?

Duerer-Prayer

Last Saturday night I had the good fortune to be at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of The Dialogue of the Carmelites. Its unlikely subject is the Carmelite order of nuns. The story is based on a historical event–during the Reign of Terror (several years into the French Revolution), the Carmelite convent in Compiègne, France was ordered by the civil government to close and the nuns to cease their religious carryings-on.  They refused, and 16 were accused of treason and eventually executed by guillotine in Paris.

The last scene of the opera is one of the most electrifying finales I have seen of anything, ever.  The imprisoned nuns, surrounded by a crowd baying for their heads, sing together in soul-rending yet grateful prayer.  Then, one by one, they slowly walk off stage, each exit followed by a terrifying shriek of the fall of the guillotine blade.  The sound of prayer gradually softens as the remaining group of nuns diminishes.  When the last one goes off to her death, the crowd disperses, silently.  Finis.

Opera Review Carmelites

Here is the final scene.  It is worth nine minutes of your life, I promise.

I hadn’t seen the opera in about 25 years, but well remembered the finale.  What I did not recall was the end of the first act, which this time was just as jolting.  The Mother Superior of the convent is not out of Central Casting–wise, loving, maybe a little bossy. This Prioress is skeptical and scalding. She is dealing not only with the French Revolution, but also the end of her own life.  From her bed she sings, wretchedly:

God has become a shadow….  Alas! I have been a nun for thirty years, and Prioress for twelve. I have been thinking of death each day of my life, and now it does not help me at all.

In her final moments one nun tells her she need now only concern herself with God. The Prioress shrieks:

Who am I, wretched as I am at this moment, to concern myself with Him!  Let Him first concern Himself with me!

The other nuns are not allowed to hear this blasphemy.  They are devoted to her.  The youngest novitiate sings to her friend:

If I could save the life of our dear Mother, I would gladly surrender my poor little life, such as it is.  Yes, on my word, I would offer my life…  But really, when one is 59, is it not high time to die?

 

This was the signal moment for me.  It has only been a matter of months since I watched my mother’s final struggle in her bed.  She did not have the Prioress’s ferocity because she did not feel betrayed (by God, or anyone).  But she did not go gentle into that good night.

I happen to be 59, the Prioress’s age, and the novitiate nailed middle age for me: Had I been living 220 years ago, it would now be high time to die; instead I may be granted, as my mother was, up to perhaps 25 extra years.  My last years will still be ‘last years.’  The dividend is dropped somewhere in the middle.  No one knows exactly where, which is why no one knows just when middle age begins and ends, and no one is comfortable with the idea of either entering or exiting it.  Small wonder, then, that there is no libretto, especially in matters of love.

One thing is for certain, though.  This is perhaps the least needy period of life, and small kindnesses go a long way.  In the opera, charity is offered reluctantly, and at great cost.  In our lives, charity costs little; why not offer it, and see what happens?

 

Bottoms up! But which one?

The Triumph of Pan 1636 copy

Drinking Alcohol, Good for Middle-aged Women: Study

A new Harvard University report concludes that women who regularly consume modest amounts of alcohol are more likely than teetotalers to be in good physical and mental health in middle age. The report is based on a study that has been tracking 14,000 women since 1976.

What, exactly, is the salubrious effect of alcohol?  The lead author of the study said, “It’s not clear exactly how alcohol benefits health, but it may have something to do with how alcohol reduces inflammation in the body.”  Experiments have shown that moderate alcohol intake “can reduce inflammation, promote healthy cholesterol levels, improve insulin resistance, and help blood vessels function properly…. Those mechanisms underlie a lot of chronic diseases and conditions.”

Large studies that are based on responses to questionnaires have inherent limitations.  While clinical trials can measure the effect of one drug by comparing it to the use of a placebo, this study must deal with many variables that affect long-term health, and there can be thorny the-chicken-or-the-egg issues. The researchers took into account many of them, including  diet, smoking, educational attainment, and family history of disease. Still, said one gerontologist, “we really can’t tease out what aspect is good for you.”

One variable not mentioned in the report is often correlated with drinking: sex. Sex is not only good exercise (well, in my case, not always).  It also causes the release of chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins, which reduce blood pressure and promote psychological well-being–which in itself an important factor in long-term health.

But again, which comes first? Are women who drink moderately in better overall health, and thus more receptive to their carnal instincts? Or are women who like sex also more devoted to other basic pleasures, such as drinking?

The only medically proven solution is to do both.  While you drink moderately, you are much better off like woman A, above, than women B, below.

Gerald-TER-BORCH-xx-WOMAN-DRINKING-WITH-SLEEPING-SOLDIER copy