I’m Not 60…I’m ‘Sexagenarian.’

On September 20 I passed a milestone that everybody said would be very difficult: I turned 60. It seems like just yesterday that I turned 50 and friends were warning, “Fifty is nothing…but you’ll really feel it when you are sixty.” A few years ago a formerly heavy colleague, newly slim, confessed that “I had to get my diet and exercise in order, because I didn’t want to turn sixty and realize my body has totally fallen apart.” And it’s become popular for women’s magazines to have features called, “Sexy at Any Age,” with photos of gorgeous celebrities grouped by their decade. For some reason it stops at 59, unless they are talking about men.

So post-birthday, I’ve spent the past week waiting to feel the axe of old age upon my head, and guess what? Nothing has happened. My hair is no grayer and my body is no more stooped or saggy than it was last week. This new decade is not as scary as it seemed when I was 10 years away from it.

It could be because we have many friends now who are post-60 and say it’s a blast if you have the right attitude. Several friends at my 60th birthday party last week were living proof: they looked fit and gorgeous; passionate about their grandchildren, work, interests and travel; and as carefree as eight-year-olds. Not a bad place to be.

Here’s one thought: maybe the key for surviving the 60s is to think and act like you did in “the 60s.” I have to admit right here that I sat on the sidelines during the free love decade (and am happily married and have no plans to start such debauchery now.) But my mind was more open and I felt the possibilities were endless. So why not make a mind-blowing change in the concept of what it means to be 60-plus? Let’s start by declaring that we’re not in our 60s…we’re “sexagenarian.”

Doesn’t that sound better?

Ten years as a sexagenarian sounds pretty exciting. I’m now in the company of people like Helen Mirren, who, someone once declared, “put the sex back in sexagenarian.” Being a sexagenarian sounds as racy as being a dancer in “Hair,” something I wasn’t allowed to see in the 60s. It sounds as daring as wearing a Catholic school uniform with fishnet stockings (which I kinda did, in 1968.) Yet because of the “gen” syllable, it also sounds vaguely healthy, like oxygen or a yoga retreat. I like it…I’ll take it!

So I now have a whole ten years in this fun new decade before I have to redefine my age all over again. It’s probably not too early to start thinking about how to spin the 70s, which are already looking challenging. Somehow “septuagenarian” doesn’t have the same ring. If you read or watched “Game of Thrones” you know that a “septa” is a humorless female religion teacher. It also sounds too much like “septic.” Maybe we can think of something different.

And don’t even get me started on octogenarians.

A Crash Course in Humility

How do you react when you are out driving and notice that a nearby motorist is driving a very beat-up car? Not a well-used or old vehicle, but one that has clearly been in a serious crash?

I have to admit that my first instinct has always been to keep as far away from them as possible, because maybe the disfiguring disease will drift back to my car like an airborne virus. Or I’ll assume the driver is careless, another reason to keep at least 18 car lengths away. Either way, the sight of a caved-in bumper, a crumpled headlight or a beleaguered motorist standing next to a roadside wreck makes me both uncomfortable and grateful. Car wrecks happen only to other people, either through carelessness or bad luck. Until it happens to you.

A few Sundays ago I was taking our son out for his first driving lesson. It was an empty parking lot near our home, next to an office building. John, his learner’s permit recently won, was eager to start driving. His older brothers had volunteered to teach him the road skills, but I felt confident that I could at least teach him the basics of our 10-year-old Acura, whose handling I knew so well. I had done the same for our older kids, using an old Sentra with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a wheel that required serious arm muscles to turn. I had warm memories of those times, and had no reason to think this would be different.

Feeling buoyant rather than apprehensive, I went over the safety precautions first and explored the seat belts, gas pedal, brake and turn signals. We adjusted the seating and the mirrors. We turned the key, and John gingerly stepped on the gas, then the brake, then the gas. His movements were tentative; the car responded overeagerly, but he seemed to get the hang of it. After a few minutes we felt confident enough to attempt a turn, and that’s when we got into trouble. We learned too late that the very handling that made the Acura a pleasure to drive for an experienced driver made it too skittish for an inexperienced one. John’s touch on the wheel was too much; the car swerved too far to the left and moved too quickly. John was paralyzed with fear and I didn’t react in time. We plowed into a wall that had looked comfortably far away just a few seconds earlier.

Luckily, neither of us was hurt, and the wall was OK. But the front driver’s side of the car now looked like the Elephant Man. After several minutes consoling John, I drove it home. Luckily the car drove as smoothly as it did before.

The verdict was grim: no interior damage but some pretty extreme plastic surgery. A new bumper and fender, new $700 head lamp, new radiator support. One body shop, affiliated with an Acura dealership, quoted us $6,000 to do the work, more than two-thirds the value of the car. We were hoping that we could avoid going through insurance, but this didn’t look good.

“Hey, this is going back to a young driver,” I pointed out. “Can you just make it safe and cut corners somewhere to save money? It doesn’t have to be perfect.” The guy at the high-end dealer – who no doubt was used to pumping up the price and figuring insurance would pay for it – acted insulted and said that everything he was proposing was absolutely necessary.

So I left the car there and told him I’d think about it, then canvassed friends for other recommendations. I found another place that many said was worth checking out. So I fetched my car from the high-end shop and drove it there. The car still ran like a champ, but it attracted more than its fair share of somber glances from other motorists and pedestrians. What were they thinking of me? I wondered. Did they assume I was a bad driver, or careless, or unlucky? Did the drivers apply their brakes to add a little more distance between us?

Wish I could have told them that I’m a good driver, and I’m cautious. I’ve only had one accident that has been my fault, nobody was hurt, and it was 14 years ago. But I just learned two humbling lessons: one, you don’t put a responsive, high-horsepower piece of machinery in the hands of a new driver, even in a parking lot, and two, I don’t have the reflexes to be a driving instructor.

A happy postscript: the nice guy at that other body shop is doing the work for way less than half, and he even gave me a ride home. And John’s next driving experience will be with a licensed driving teacher in a car with two sets of controls.

You’ve Got Plenty of Sympathy

liliesToday in Target I saw something that I thought I would never see: a six-pack of sympathy cards.

I was shopping with my mom and looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose own elderly mother just passed away after a long struggle with dementia. Imagine my surprise when among the tasteful, dignified cards picturing lilies, crosses, butterflies, serene gardens and poetic sentiments was a shrink-wrapped bargain bundle of them!

You know that the U.S. population demographics are skewing older when you can now buy sympathy cards in bulk, much like you’d purchase shrink-wrapped supplies of mac and cheese or vitamin water. One for now and more for later, “just in case.” Bargain survival-sized rations of something that you only use when somebody doesn’t survive. What’s next: boxes of 25 at Costco?

A six-pack of sympathy cards is perfect if you are expecting a slew of bad news. As a growing number of us in middle age also deal with aging parents, this is a morbid sign of the times. No less than six of our good friends and neighbors have lost their parents within the past year. Moreover, as I approach my sixtieth birthday I find myself scanning the obits more and more, for people my age as well as for people whose families I might know. Every time I see an age gap that’s uncomfortably close I go out for a walk and count my blessings.

Perhaps buying sympathy cards ahead is not such a bad idea, especially in the age of prepaid funerals and advanced health care directives. The late comedienne Joan Rivers planned the details of her own funeral several years ago, including tributes from Meryl Streep in five languages and a wind machine near her coffin so that Joan (dressed in Valentino) would look as fetching as Beyonce. People who are far less famous than Joan Rivers have also planned their ultimate going-away party. A good friend of mine has also asked her family to follow special orders if she is ever on life support:  don’t pull the plug until she’s a size 10. As someone who’s worked at newspapers I also know that eulogies and obits are often composed well before the body gets cold.

Well, I did buy the six-pack of sympathy cards, which are tasteful and simple, along with a “special” single card for my neighbor, and figured I wouldn’t feel bad about it because I’m not sure who will get them. Afterwards my mom and I decompressed by heading over the section of funny cards, howling out loud at some of the more risqué ones.

One can argue of course that buying ahead saves time, money and gas, just like buying toilet paper in bulk or a 700-capsule jar of vitamins. Yet the pain and trauma of losing a loved one, no matter how old, makes it seem crass to be practical about how we comfort them. I’ve always viewed choosing sympathy cards not only as a respectful custom and a duty towards the grieving, but also as a meditation on the person’s life and the family’s loss. The sentiment that works for one grief-stricken family may not work for another. And it never occurred to me to make a special trip to buy a sympathy card ahead of time, even if someone I know is clearly at the end. There is something vulture-like about this. It feels like cheating, like being presumptuous or even inviting the worst. So maybe I will save my shrink wrapped cards for people I don’t know that well.

Little Bro Crosses Over

John through the ages.

John through the ages.

When your youngest child is born long after the others, he or she often spends an inordinate amount of time being “the baby.” These bumper crop kids are fussed over, cooed at and petted far longer than the others. When the adult siblings visit, the youngest often enjoys a short time playing piggyback or Mario Kart, then goes back to the safe spot under mom or dad’s wing while the adult kids talk about music, relationships and Breaking Bad.

But at some point, and sometimes it’s hard to pin down, the relationship changes. The youngest goes from being a pet to a peer, and for their parents this transition is bittersweet. We watch with love, pride and a little regret as the bonds strengthen between our little one and our older ones; as their universe of shared interests grows larger; as the conversations between them become more easygoing and filled with cultural references that we don’t understand.

Our son John recently celebrated his 16th birthday. As our youngest child – with a full 10-year point spread from our second youngest – John was the baby for far too long. We fretted over him, protected him, did far too much for him at times. He looked to us constantly for reassurance. But little by little something happened, and we can’t pinpoint exactly when it began, no more than we could have predicted the onset of adolescence through the gradual emergence of downy facial hair. He quietly migrated from our orbit to his siblings’.

Aiding that process is John’s maturing personality, which is delightful. Not that it wasn’t wonderful before now, but it is less childlike and more adult-like and appealing to older people every day. He has a wry way of looking at the world, an ability to detect subtle humor, a keen appreciation of rock and roll from all eras, and a fascination with fast cars (also from all eras). He appreciates Pawn Stars, Pokemon and Monty Python. He sets the table without being asked and clears the table cheerfully. While he once clung to us, he is also far more at ease going off on his own with people closer to his own age.

John marked his 16th birthday relaxing by the pool with some of his closest guy friends. Bob and I could not be there for the entire party so his 27-year-old brother Ben served as “the chaperone” until we got home. But as I watched the guys banter, talk and play video games, I realized that the relationship was more peer than parent. It doesn’t seem a whole 16 years ago that Ben and our other four children were in the hospital delivery room, only 15 minutes after John was born. They held their infant brother carefully, like a piece of crystal that they were afraid they would break. A few months later, during a beautiful fall afternoon at a local country fair, our son Jesse, then the age John is now, asked if he could carry around his baby brother because he would be a “chick magnet,” a hunch that proved correct.

John, often in his car seat, was a frequent fixture at my daughter Rachel’s hockey and softball games. When John was 3, Ben would carry him around on his back and pantomime his favorite TV wrestlers’ best moves. John would squeal with delight when Ben pretended to “finish” him through such medieval-sounding moves as the “tomb stone pile driver” or the “suplex.” We have videos from that time, trapped on mini cassette tapes from a broken video cam and now unplayable on DVD, Blu-ray or any of our other devices.

Over the past few months I’ve had to realize that John is growing up and I need to begin bowing out. I have hung back and let him have his private time with his siblings. I stayed out of earshot and watched John deep in conversation with his brother Ryan and Ryan’s friend David, both visiting from England. I stayed in the kitchen while John watched the latest wrestling pay-per-view with Ben and his friend Tom, when they talked animatedly and knowledgebly about the wrestlers’ colorful backstories and signature moves. The former “chick magnet” now enjoys talking about cars with fellow motor-head Jesse. A few months ago, when we visited Bob’s family and Rachel in California, I hung back while Rachel took John to the beach for surfing lessons and on a tour of Los Angeles, Venice Beach and Hollywood. He came back sunburnt but happy, proud that he finally stood up on a surfboard and filled with memories of special times with his sister.

Parents make a child’s earliest memories, and if we have done our job right the good times will burn more brightly than our inevitable mistakes. But at some point children begin making their own memories, and we are no longer the director or the lead characters. A key breakout for kids like John is transitioning from the role of “little brother” to simply “brother.” For a parent, it is beautiful as well as difficult to watch.

Where’s My Magic, Dammit?

Sometimes a day hands you a magical moment, the kind that friends tap you to write about in one of those many viral campaigns on Facebook this summer. This is not one of those days. This means that for the third day in a row I will be disappointing my daughter, who has agreed to post her own magic moments on Facebook and three days ago tapped me to do the same.

If you are reading this it means you have not deserted my blog, despite its inexcusably long absence. And here I am on your doorstep — feeling sheepish and apprehensive but hopeful you will show me to my old bedroom in your blogging home once more. Still, I wouldn’t blame you if you had assumed me dead (or worse still, a lightweight) or if you shut the door in my face.

But first let me explain. I have a long list of excuses reasons for not blogging. I got busy professionally. We were traveling. It’s been gardening season and I go into a zen-like, mindless trance while pulling weeds and drowning Japanese beetles with Dead-Bug. For the past few months I have even given up newspapers and most television to spend my limited free time binge-reading all five “Game of Thrones” novels. Most seriously, my mother has come to live with us and we have devoted ourselves to helping her get adjusted…a job we are honestly happy to do for a woman who gave so much to me when I was an angst-ridden 13-year-old. All of these have totally cut into the time I have for the introspection that a blog requires. But part of me still believes in magic, and hopes that by some miracle you have not un-followed me.

Still with me? Good, because I want to tell you the closest thing I had to a magical moment today. I’m sure many of you have been asked on Facebook this summer to sign up for a multi-week marathon of posting your blessings, reasons to be grateful, 25 things people don’t know about you, etc. These have been making the rounds on social media these days, and I frankly have found them tiresome. Usually I just read my friends’ postings while feeling a little smug that I’ve eluded the trap. I’ve even resisted the ever-growing conga line of people who’ve embraced the ALS ice bucket challenge, a group that now includes the New England Patriots, many celebrities, Ethel Kennedy and most surprisingly, even some of my most cynical friends. I think my sister and I have been the only ones who haven’t posted videos of ourselves dumping ice on our heads. We both agreed that writing a nice check to the ALS Foundation was far preferable than getting our naturally curly hair wet and having to spend an hour blowing it out all over again. (I know that many of those who donated also were game enough to ice themselves down, but I have no sense of fun. Just ask my kids.)

But as I mentioned earlier, three days ago my daughter Rachel asked me to look for magic in each day and write about it. I thought about it this morning but once again was too busy to slow down and look for any magic. We have been enjoying a visit from son Ryan and his friend, David, both visiting from England, and it has been wonderful but not magical. We also hosted our son Ben, his friend Tom, and some of my son John’s teenaged friends over the past two days for swimming and watching a wrestling pay-per-view. I’ve been frantically defrosting hotdogs, drying wet towels and blowing up air mattresses. Just as the last teens left today, my husband Bob hosted some business associates at our home, and lunch had to be made. Horror of horrors, for the first time in memory, we had no beer in the house.

And of course, there were our dogs Gus and Rita to attend to, and they have been work recently. We have had a few challenging weeks with Rita, who did not take it well when we left her in a kennel while on vacation (even though she looked happy on the kennel’s streaming video). We arranged for them to be bathed and groomed before we picked them up, and Rita arrived home with gleaming gold fur, a pink bow, an attitude and some bad habits we thought she had outgrown. She started having the occasional accident on the floor, and my olfactory sense developed a raging paranoia, smelling plots everywhere. And I smelled one in the house today, right after I had brought Rita outside to do her business in an “authorized” location, and just as Bob’s business associates were arriving for lunch.

Armed with paper towels and Nature’s Miracle, I went on the hunt. But where was it? I checked all the spots in the house where she had offended before, but could not find anything. I smelled it most strongly in our small laundry area, and crawled along the floor there without any luck. I was equally unlucky in the kitchen, with its dark floor that hid a multitude of dark deeds. I crouched down and eyeballed the surface of the floor like a golfer eyeing his shot at ground level. Luckily, Bob’s business guests had retreated to the open-air porch and its forgiving breezes.

Then I spied it. Not on the floor, but on the bottom of my shoe. I pulled off the shoe and brought it just close enough to my nose to confirm it. And then I laughed, so hard I was afraid I’d be the next offender. I shared the story with John and he laughed just as hard. And I realized that sometimes a day just hands you magic, but other days you step in it.

Those Pesky Moral Curve Balls

Yesterday I had one of those moments that would have caused a Catholic school nun to pull me by the ear or a priest to demand a dozen Hail Marys. I faced a moral curve ball, swung lamely and missed.

It was just a venial sin, but it happened in front of someone who deserved a better example. So like all good (albeit lapsed) Catholics, I’m confessing it — and looking not for sympathy, but a conversation with those of who who’ve faced similar dilemmas.

So here is what happened. I took our 16-year-old German exchange student, Antonia, to our local mall to shop for a dress for her swim team banquet Sunday. She decided she wanted to poke around the shops by herself so we parted ways and she headed for Forever 21, the fashion mecca for the young, broke and fabulous. We met up an hour later.

On our way back to the car Antonia talked excitedly about her bargains, which didn’t surprise me at first because Forever 21 is known for their $7 jeans and $5.50 tops, prices unseen since my E.J. Korvette’s days in the 1960s. Three items – a flowered dress, yellow cardigan and jeans – cost Antonia just $17. We quickly came to the conclusion that this must be a mistake; a check of the receipt confirmed this. The sales clerk had forgotten to add the dress to the tally. The bill would have been twice as high without the mistake.

Antonia had spent her own scarce money on this, so part of her was glad. I could sense, though, that it was nagging her a little bit. It was nagging me too. The right thing to do would have been to return immediately to Forever 21, point out the mistake and offer to pay for the dress. But we were in a hurry to get home because we had dinner to make and things to do that evening, so I used that excuse for taking the easy way out. I’m sure the markup on their clothes is big enough that they won’t care, I told myself. Maybe there was a sale that we didn’t know about. And hey, how many times does a mistake in your favor get made? How many mistakes have you missed that were not in your favor? We packed our shopping bags and our guilt in the back seat and tried not to think about it.

On the way home we talked about the cheap labor that must make the clothing sold at Forever 21, and whether their minions at the sewing machines earn a living wage. Antonia said when she got older and had more money she’d gladly spend more on garments made by better-paid workers. I told her that she was young and didn’t have much money, and not to think about that yet…and that even higher-priced clothing sometimes did not come with a guarantee that the workers were better compensated.

But while we talked passionately about the issue of fairly treated workers, we danced around the moral dilemma of the innocently purloined dress. Antonia noted that the clerk at Forever 21 had remarked that the dress was a hot seller; so surely he should have noticed it as he rang her up, we both agreed. I can’t remember everything that I said about the matter, except that it was pretty lame. It would have been better for Antonia if I had demanded that we turn around and pay what we really owed, even if it meant dinner would be late. But I didn’t.

Now don’t get the idea that I make a habit of stiffing people. Many times, Bob and I have pointed out mistakes that were in our favor; we didn’t want a waiter to make up the difference out of his own money or the store clerk to get a lashing from the manager when accounts were tallied at the end of the day.

But sometimes doing the right thing is a pain in the ass, especially when it is inconvenient, like yesterday. And other times, sad to say, it is not your first instinct. Like the time 17 years ago when I was  out shopping with my children, Rachel and Ryan (then 11 and 8), and we parked head-in right next to a brand new Toyota that was parked head-out. One of the kids opened the back door right into the Toyota’s left headlight, smashing it to pieces. The first words out of my mouth were — in front of the kids — “Maybe we should move the car.”

Five minutes later, our shopping already underway, I turned to the kids and said, “You know, this isn’t right. We really need to write a note to the owner of that other car.” So we returned to the scene of the crime and did just that. When we got home I researched the cost of a genuine Toyota headlight and discovered to my dismay that it would be about $230 plus labor. Fortunately the Toyota owner, who called that night, was grateful, gracious and practical. She had her local mechanic do the job and it cost just $60. So it was a cheap lesson to learn.

Still, I felt guilty that I talked about moving the car in front of Rachel and Ryan. But now, 17 years later, I look at it another way: when you are scared or rushed the right thing isn’t as clear-cut as the Baltimore Catechism would have you believe. Is it OK for kids to see their parents struggle out loud with a moral decision and be seriously tempted to take advantage of a situation when the odds are in their favor? I think it is. It shows that we are human, doing our best when things are not always black and white.

So that is why, despite having many other things to do, today Antonia and I will do what it would have been far less time-consuming to do yesterday: we will head back to the mall with our sales receipt and the tag from the dress, and settle up with Forever 21.

Sometimes when we’re facing a moral curve ball, we swing and miss before we connect. Have any of you ever felt this way?

The Less Said, the Better

Does being quiet mean being surly, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick?

Does being quiet mean being surly, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick?

Do we talk too much? Maybe it’s the winter, or maybe it’s that I’m getting older and running out of earth-shattering experiences to talk about, but over the past few months I haven’t felt like talking very much.  Memo to my loved ones and friends: it’s me, not you.

Seems I am in good company. The New York Times last weekend did a great story about how freelancers and sole-proprietor business owners often forget how to hold a phone conversation, since much of their communication is via email and text. And a new book on the best-seller list, “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, talks about how introverted people are less valued than the dynamic fast-talking extroverts, and automatically presumed to be less capable leaders. The adoration of extroverts came about when the U.S. switched from an agrarian society to one based on manufacturing, creating more goods to be sold — and hence, a need for more smooth-talking extroverts to sell them. Cain points out that today Harvard Business School encourages its students to be confident extroverts and persuasive talkers, even if the ideas they are promoting are only 55 percent developed. She also says that some of history’s most dynamic business leaders have been introverts rather than extroverts, but skilled at bringing out the best in others. And she says that introverts can still be sociable and have great conversations, but they just need lots of time to decompress afterwards. I’m reading that book now and it has been a revelation. I am starting to understand those friends and family members who just don’t like talking on the phone.

Have any of you ever wished that you didn’t have to talk so much? When I was growing up, quiet people were considered weird, depressed or difficult. It was difficult to row the boat the whole time with them. It was much cooler to be a good talker, to be spontaneous and “outgoing.” I think I knew in my heart that I was quiet and thoughtful but felt I needed to talk to have friends. And if I was around someone who didn’t want to talk – either because they were naturally shy or reserved, didn’t know me or didn’t want to know me – I’d feel panic. My response was to talk more to fill the void, often with bad results. I also talked because I felt that being vivacious and a “people person” would make me more lovable. The real me is actually more introspective and better at having a quiet and meaningful discussion with one good friend than a roomful of strangers.

Having to shift gears quickly from focusing on one person to focusing on another is challenging. This compulsive need to talk when I didn’t feel like it has led to much foot chewing after I  invariably say the wrong thing. I think that is why I like to disappear into the kitchen or take pictures when at parties; it’s easier for me when I don’t have to talk. It is also why I went into writing, a profession that requires more listening and note-taking, and some thought before one communicates through the written rather than spoken word.

Maybe it’s OK to be a man, or woman, of fewer words. Just ask New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, master of the one-word answer. Or Bartleby the Scrivener, whose only conversation was “I prefer not to.” Or plenty of other legendary and literary figures who were the strong and silent type.

Still, I worry that a quieter me won’t have as many friends. Will my loved ones will be upset or think that I love them less if I don’t talk as much, when nothing could be farther from the truth? I also worry that being more introspective will cause me to brood too much; that maybe it’s healthier to get out there and engage with other people and put my inner life on the shelf.

Can one be silent and strong?

Can one be silent and strong?

A few weeks ago when my grown children were visiting for Christmas, we had some times when we would just sit silently on the couch and disappear into our Iphones. I felt bereft during those times and responsibility to fill the void. Had I lost my connection with them? Did their lives on the other side of the country and on another continent have a stronger gravitational pull on them? But the funny thing is…those connections crackled to life when we just went out and did something, without a need for constant talk. My daughter Rachel and I took a nine-mile hike around a nearby lake, and sometimes we talked and other times we didn’t. The I-Phone that drew much of her attention in the house became a GPS for helping us find our way around the trail. We had some great conversations when we were not busy concentrating on the trail and the scenery. I felt proud to be able to share this hike with her.

Maybe, whether one is an extrovert or an introvert, the key is less talking and more doing.  What do you think?