Please Photograph Me From Above

Yesterday I went through the day in a really bad mood for a really dumb reason: some terribly unflattering photos of me were posted on Facebook.

My husband snapped the photos out of love yesterday morning, capturing a tender moment between me and our dogs. But it was a humid morning, I had not slept well and my hair and face were not ready for prime time. Worse still, he shot from below where I was sitting, aiming the camera up into my face, chin and collapsed body frame. The result was a stark reminder that I am losing the battle with Father Time. After I got over the shock, I just sulked.

In the era of global terrorism, opioid crises, health care reform and income inequality, this is a really vain and stupid thing to get upset about. But coming on the heels of hearing that I have osteoporosis and on weeks of soggy weather that have been terrible for my hair, the photos were a shock. So let me relieve the mystery, put vanity aside, summon all the courage I have and share one of them:

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And here’s another one from a few months ago, which is how I prefer to view myself:

18199166_10209075302255799_7697485659817589556_nWhich one is the real me? It’s probably both of them, depending on how good I feel, how much care I’ve put into my face and hair that day, whether I consulted my color wheel and how rested or stressed I am. But as we age the costs of slacking off get higher, and nothing is more unforgiving than a camera and the wrong lighting. Goldie Hawn, who always looks fantastic in photos but famously caught flack for this un-retouched photo of her going to the gym, most likely understands this.

And so do most women middle-aged and older. My friends and I have shared some lighthearted moments about what control freaks we can be as soon as a camera points our way.  One friend likes to joke that she tells her kids not to pull the plug until she wastes away a few dress sizes.

A few weeks ago at our son’s graduation party a male friend wanted to take a group photo of ladies, all of us over 40. We all demanded that he shoot us from above to minimize any sagging, and he obliged – squeezing out a few shots before his face turned mischievous and he dropped to his knees, capturing one more photo from that terribly unflattering angle. The shocked and protesting looks on our faces in that photo – which I’d never share here without my friends’ permission — were priceless.

As I close in on my 63rd year, I’ve squirmed in that uncomfortable spot between vanity and self-acceptance. Somewhere is a happy medium between looking unattractively vain (like you’ve obviously “had work done”) and pulling the ripcord and letting it all go. I haven’t found it yet. I’ve dieted and not dieted, abstained and overindulged in wine, walked daily and spent too much time in a chair, swum laps for exercise and avoided the water because of what it will do to my skin and hair, penciled and not penciled the eyebrows I over-plucked in my 20s. Jobs, family obligations, unread newspapers and unfolded clothes all get me off track from the increasingly Herculean effort needed to look youthful.

So what’s the remedy for those of us who haven’t aged as well as Audrey Hepburn? Is it an attitude adjustment or more time at the gym and the makeup mirror?

Maybe an easy fix is just avoiding cameras altogether, or insisting that we have veto power over photos that don’t paint us in our best light. Even Marilyn Monroe insisted on viewing contact sheets of her before any photos were printed, and would draw a big “X” on the photos she didn’t like. At the very least we can bully the photographer into standing on a ladder for any photos.

Or maybe the answer is just lightening up and realizing that attractive days and non-attractive days are just part of the aging experience, and that inner beauty is what matters, as hackneyed as it sounds. Maybe we should all be less critical of ourselves – I’ve found that turning a photo of yourself upside down helps you view yourself with the same dispassion as others.

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Maybe we should just focus on what we’ve accomplished over the years instead of the muscle tone, dewiness and skin elasticity we’ve lost.

That makes so much sense, but why is it so hard?

What do you think?

Why I Cling to Paper Recipes

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

Nearly any recipe you can cook can be found online. Epicurious, Allrecipes, the Food Network, the New York Times food section…all offer instant gratification and full-color photos and videos for the impatient or impetuous cook. Even obscure recipes from my childhood – such as a recipe for German apple cake made with bread crumbs — can be retrieved with a few well-chosen keywords.

Yet I cling to a long row of recipe books, at least half of them never used. I also have a 30-year-old accordion file filled with yellowing, aging scraps of paper, scribbled with cooking instructions for dishes I’ve never made from people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. The alphabetized file (do they even sell them any more?) is covered with remnants of wallpaper from the kitchen of my first townhouse, back when ridiculous geese, gray/blue florals and “welcome friends” signs were all the rage.

With few exceptions the books are pristine. Some were gifts from friends. I made appreciative murmurs when they were bestowed and looked through them with good intentions, promising, “I’ll definitely use this a LOT!” Then I put them on the kitchen bookshelf and forgot about them. Their unblemished and uncracked spines stare back at me from the shelf, like the “40-year-old virgin’s” collection of never-played-with action figures. They make me worry that I’m too inhibited a chef. They make me feel lazy because for the past decade I’ve shunned any recipe that ends with the words “serve immediately.” But I keep the books because my friends gave them to me and I feel ungrateful parting with them.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

Other cookbooks on the shelf have been used time and time again, but only for a handful of recipes. With apologies to Julie of “Julie and Julia,” I find the challenge of trying every recipe pointless and daunting. Unlike a more organized friend who cooks, I’ve resisted the urge to keep the most-frequently-used recipes in one binder, with each recipe entombed behind protective plastic. That would mean the rest of the cherry-picked books would indeed be useless, strengthening the case for getting rid of them.

“Joy of Cooking” (the 19th printing, from 1980) is a good reference for technique, but it’s like visiting a time capsule from the first half of the 20th century, with recipes like chicken a la king. “Cooking Essentials for the New Professional Chef,” a book son Ryan gave me from a class he took in college, will tell you all you need to know about mis en place, boning a rabbit, or making eight professional-quality apple pies at a time.   The thick tome by Jacques Pepin, heavy enough to flatten a chicken, was from a class at Sur La Table entitled “Cooking with Jacques Pepin,” which I took with son Jesse. I’ve used exactly two recipes from that book, but looking at it reminds me of how we laughed at the fine print that accompanied the promo for that class: “Jacques Pepin will not be in attendance.”

If cookbooks are the kitchen’s reference library, my old recipe folder is the rare documents room in the museum of my personal history. Inside it can be found recipes in my dad’s handwriting or from his old Okidata dot-matrix printer, on perforated paper that once included holes along the edges. While he’s been gone for 17 years, seeing those old recipes in his handwriting brings him back to me. I can almost smell the steam from the pizzelli iron, as I talked with Dad and timed each pizzelli with a Hail Mary.

Other filed recipes recall old coworkers from 30 years ago, including the recipes on large post cards that were part of a bridal shower they gave me for my first marriage. One, for chicken and rice casserole, has been used many dozens of times, and when I see the handwriting of the woman who gave it to me – a fragile, lonely person who had affairs with two married men at the office – I hope that she has become stronger over time. Filed under “C,” the ripped-out pages from a 1989 Good Housekeeping Christmas issue hold my most treasured cookie recipe. That recipe only takes up one page but for some reason I’ve saved the entire article, including the recipe for “Barbara Bush’s Ginger Cookies.” I was a young mother of 35 back then, busier but still driven to make lots of Christmas cookies – unlike today.

So for me recipes on paper are not only instructions, but tangible relics of the past – the friends I’ve lost touch with, my aunts’ cheerful kitchens, the occasions when the recipes were first tasted, the girl or woman I was back then. The most beloved ones are also the most stained and careworn, like a soft old sweatshirt with frayed sleeves. Epicurious will always have its place, but an iPad screen is no substitute for a book that can be perused on a rainy day, opened up on a countertop or stained by an errant splash of gravy; or a handwritten recipe that still bears the DNA of a loved one who is long gone.

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.

The Monsters in My Closet

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Sweats from a store that's synonymous with tacky. Why can't I throw them away?

Sweats from a store that’s synonymous with tacky. Why can’t I throw them away?

November 1 and the wind is howling outside. It’s warm today but if you believe the weather forecast the wind is ushering in some cold temperatures. A perfect time to edit my winter wardrobe with a clear head…because once the cold weather arrives I will put on anything warm without thinking about how it looks.

Dressing for winter is always a bit of a problem. I’m extremely sensitive to cold (especially damp cold, very common here in New England) and need warm and comfortable layers, preferably in natural fibers, to keep me from shivering. I also don’t work outside the home so have no gun to my head to make me look polished every day. A typical day consists of some writing, answering emails and Facebook-trawling at my home computer, keeping up with two dogs, cooking for the guys, doing some chores, taking a walk, running some errands and maybe meeting up with a friend for lunch. Except for the last two occasions, comfort usually wins out over pride.

I have a closet full of nice clothes that I have picked up at boutiques and shops here and in California, where my in-laws live and the clothes have a bit more panache than they do here in New England. They are filmy tops made from manmade fibers (which look terrific but are never warm), snug-fitting jeans that pinch if I sit too long in them or had carbs at breakfast, dressy sweaters (perfect for an afternoon at an art gallery or in a chic part of the city but not for making homemade sauce with meatballs.) I buy them with the best intentions, and look far better when I put them on – usually when the weather is comfortably warm or cool and the humidity is low. Yet on a raw, blustery day with nothing on the agenda I inevitably reach for the shleppiest thing in my closet – loose jeans, drawstring

UM...this isn't glamorous. But it sure is warm.

UM…this isn’t glamorous. But it sure is warm. (Sorry, UMass.)

sweats, once-proud cashmere sweaters that have holes and have gone through the wash, thick Wigwam socks designed for sub-zero camping trips, corduroy pants that cry out for a sweater emblazoned with country geese, shirts from the loungewear department at Target. Even defended from the cold by unglamorous layers of fleece, I still need to brew lots of hot tea to stoke a warming fire from within.

A few days ago we enjoyed a visit from some good friends from the Silicon Valley area, and we were talking about moms from nice neighborhoods who dress to the nines even when they are walking the dog or picking up the kids from school. My friend Renee talked about the mothers at an upscale grade school who dressed like they were on a runway to pick up their offspring. Picking up my own son from school, I am amazed at the number of pubescent girls who wear bare legs and short skirts with their Ugg boots. And I thank God for tinted auto glass.

I also marvel when Bob and I watch the news on TV and see the female weather forecaster dressed in a chic short-sleeved dress, perfect for a summer night out, when she’s predicting sub-freezing temperatures. Bob does not help when he remarks, “She should do the weather in the nude.”

A few years ago I interviewed a boutique owner who always looked fabulous, and she lamented that she wished more northern gals cared as much as the southerners do about how they dressed. Southern women, she pointed out, wear chic Juicy Couture track suits, good jewelry and nice makeup even when they are shopping for groceries. I’d like to introduce one of these Georgia peaches to a nice nor’easter. After that experience she will happily put on a pair of drawstring sweats from Old Navy.

There must be a happy compromise between being chic and being comfortable and warm. I’ve looked around our local mall for answers but can’t envision myself with the word “Pink!” stamped on my butt, or in anything that Kanye would wear with a thick gold chain. Nor do I see myself in anything that is sold next to the camping gear or that would look good with a folk art sweater.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

I do have a few tips that have served me well. One is that if you are only in the car, you need only worry about what you are wearing on the part of your body that can be seen through the window. I have some nice colorful scarves that can be easily draped over those tacky sweats and nobody will ever know. However, this can backfire, as one of my best friends found out. When her daughter got on the school bus without her lunch, my friend pulled a jacket over her short nightshirt, jumped in the car, and sped down the street to a spot where the bus would stop later. Only she didn’t count on a male neighbor recognizing her car and sauntering over for a chat.

Another tip is that the right close-fitting underwear is a fitting armor under those flimsier but more attractive clothes. Maybe that’s what those weather chicks wear; I must ask them some time.

While I have nowhere to go today except for Target, I think I nailed a good compromise: comfortable but close-fitting jeans (thanks to the Lycra gods), a lavender Lucky Jeans waffle-weave top, the pretty necklace that Bob gave me last Christmas. Tomorrow I may not be so lucky.

So in the spirit of true confession, this post includes items I wear when I care most about comfort, most of them very unfashionable. How about you? What do you wear when comfort is the top priority and nobody is looking?

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Halloween’s Darkest Hours

Ryan as a clown and Rachel as "Able Baker Charlie" from the Richard Scarry Books, 1989.

Ryan as a clown and Rachel as “Able Baker Charlie” from the Richard Scarry Books, 1989.

It’s dusk on October 31, and for the first time in decades, we won’t be turning on the porch light for trick-or-treaters. It has been years since we had more than a few visitors, and we could have justified bowing out some time during the last millennium. Living on a dark street with no streetlights or sidewalks, we are in forbidden territory for wee princesses, jedis and older ghouls. When a family with three young children still lived next door we knew we’d get at least a few visitors. Alas, they moved to California and we can no longer count on them. And even our kids never trick-or-treated close to home; we always drove them to neighborhoods with sidewalks.

But the most important factor in our decision to close is that our 15-year-old is not doing Halloween this year. Too much homework, a diminished taste for candy, and a long day of school and after-school activities have made John decide to throw in the towel (or the pillowcase). While his friend Zack called a few weeks ago to try to get him interested in prowling a few neighborhoods, John has officially retired from trick or treating. This will be the first time that none of our children has gone trick-or-treating from our home, since all but John are grown and flown.

So the pumpkin went uncarved this year, and I have to say that my hands, with their creeping arthritis, won’t miss scraping out pumpkin guts with an ice cream scoop. I think about all the thought we gave to pumpkins in the past, all the faces we dreamed up, all the candles we lit, all for naught because nobody came. Yes I am relieved but also feeling a little regret.

John as "Batista," a favorite wrestler, 2010.

John as “Batista,” a favorite wrestler, 2010.

Halloween used to be a big deal. I remember dressing my daughter Rachel as a bunny, when she was just a year old, and looking forward to showing her off around the neighborhood, but she fell fast asleep on my shoulder by the second house. At our former home in Pennsylvania, in a densely populated neighborhood, close to 80 trick or treaters would visit each year. When I had more youthful energy I’d make up Halloween party bags with homemade cookies for the kids and set out spiked cider, cheese and crackers, and pumpkin bread for their grateful chaperones. As I look through old photos I see the march of time: from baby bunnies, gypsies and clowns to “Scream” masks, cross-dressers, slashers, wrestlers and pimps. In grade school my daughter Rachel dressed as a football player and son Ryan as a cheerleader. Ten years later Ryan borrowed my longest white coat, added a big hat and trick-or-treated as a pimp. Our son Ben went out one year dressed as a bag of trash, and somewhere we have tape from a camera that doesn’t work anymore that shows a toddler John whacking Ben with a pitchfork that year. Despite a half-hearted clucking about violent-looking costumes I always enjoyed the creativity the kids brought to Halloween.

Jesse and Rachel, around 1987.

Jesse and Rachel, around 1987.

But all six have moved on, and no neighborhood kids have taken their place. So tonight we’ll catch up on all the shows we missed because of the World Series (go Sox!!!) and maybe watch Young Frankenstein again. But we will take one last wistful look at the ghosts of Halloweens past.

crossdress

Football player and cheerleader, around 1994.

Happy Birthday, Gene-ius!

In 2009, Gene revisited his bachelor pad at the Normandie apartments in Manhattan.

In 2009, Gene revisited his bachelor pad at the Normandie apartments in Manhattan.

A few weeks ago we worried that my father-in-law, Gene, would not be celebrating his 84th birthday today. He was in the hospital, his breathing labored with pneumonia and COPD. Doctors found a blood clot in his leg and other problems. They talked about Gene possibly staying hospitalized for weeks. My mother-in-law Lois was distraught; three of their grandchildren drove long distances to see them and the rest made anxious phone calls and Facebook posts. My husband, Bob, and his three brothers kept in touch constantly and worried about whether this could be it.

But today, Gene is at home, off the oxygen that the doctors said he’d need for weeks, marking his 84th year. He is determined to keep his plans to fly with Lois from California to Boston next month for our early Thanksgiving dinner, a three-year tradition in our family. At last count he had at least 15 Words With Friends games going, and has returned to his daily morning worship at the Squawkbox shrine, following the market as fervently as an old nun fingers a rosary. Lois is back to nagging him about the volume on the TV, so things are really back to normal!

I guess I was not surprised that Gene fought his way back. He has done it before, having beaten lung and colon cancer 17 years ago, another time when we worried that the end was near. The man is a survivor — kept breathing by his lively curiosity, his highly creative and inventive mind, his brash confidence and his unflagging love for his family. And that’s good because we can’t imagine life without him.

His close call motivated me to go through some old photos of Gene and think about his life. The pictures show a mischievous teen who thrived in New York’s mean streets; a

Gene (lower left) had the devil in him already as a teenage boy; can you tell from that smile?

Gene (lower left) had the devil in him already as a teenage boy; can you tell from that smile?

confident rake and businessman (the word “swanky” comes to mind); a family man with four young sons; an 80-year-old looking wistful as he revisited his old haunts. Gene has been all of these, as well as a gifted salesman, an entrepreneur and inventor, an artist at the easel and the computer, a shameless flirt, a teller of outrageously ribald stories and jokes (we’ve had to reprimand him when he goes too far in front of the grandchildren), and a proud agnostic who delights in challenging believers. On the home front, he is father to four sons, grandfather to eight, and a father figure to his beloved daughters-in-law and to other now-grown men whom he and Lois sheltered and encouraged as boys.

Gene talks frankly about his difficult family life, which drove him out of the house to hang out with a rough crowd in the Washington Heights part of Manhattan. They would gather at a stone wall near an athletic field and plan the day’s exploits. When we visited New York with him in 2009 in honor of his 80th, Gene reminisced about swimming in the Hudson River under the George Washington Bridge; something that would probably cause some type of nasty disease ending in “osis” today. But Gene had an artistic streak as well as a wild one; he studied at the Art Institute of New York and showed amazing talent.

Later, as a young businessman at his dad’s company, he’d bring secretaries home to his New York bachelor pad. One of his favorite sketches depicts Lois, his future wife, asleep in his bed looking as peaceful as an angel. Lois successfully ended Gene’s bachelor era; once they married she gave him four sons in six years. Gene’s work in the restaurant equipment business would take his family from New Jersey, to Wyoming, to Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Driven and accomplished, he worked hard, patented many inventions, founded and sold several businesses and made a good living. He and Lois passed on their intelligence, artistic ability and work ethic to their four sons, all of whom have been successful.

Gene as a young rake and businessman.

Gene as a young rake and businessman.

Gene’s remarkable paintings and digital art cover the walls of his California home and his sons’ far-flung residences; his pizza ovens, dough presses and tools can be found in pizza kitchens around the country. Not content to rest on his laurels, Gene continues to come up with new concepts and inventions, including (my favorite) a sponge that would be worn inside the mouth to absorb onion fumes and prevent tears. Lois has had to gently (or not so gently) discourage him from doing a patent search every time he has a new invention, for fear of that the fees will drain their savings. Some of his ideas are frankly crazy…but then again, so were those of some of history’s greatest artists, thinkers and inventors.

To Gene I say: keep coming up with those crazy ideas and keep dreaming. And now that you are back from the brink, take care of yourself and postpone the next one as long as you can. Happy birthday! We love you!

Through the years, Gene's family has been his greatest joy.

Through the years, Gene’s family has been his greatest joy.

Neither Newly Wed, Nor Nearly Dead

I can't go there.

I can’t go there.

Over the past few months we’ve received a number of brochures in the mail sent by companies who assume that we are either very old and/or very wealthy. Has anyone else had this problem?

Many of these mailings are glossy brochures advertising Viking river cruises to Prague, Budapest and other exotic and far-off places, with costs for two exceeding the cost of a patio or used car. A few cruises are sponsored by the alumni association of our alma mater, which has no doubt assumed that everybody in the Class of ’76 is now flush with cash – even those of us who studied journalism. What bothers me, beyond the assumption that we have all this cash, is that cruises have always been for “the newly wed or the nearly dead.” Since we’ve been married almost 15 years I can only assume the worst.

Because my husband has his own business, development officers from our alma mater over the past few years have contacted him about meeting personally. “I’m going to be in Boston next (date),” bubbled one in a friendly note. “Would love to have the chance to meet with you and talk about all the great things our school is doing.”  Moreover, other mailings that we’ve received have suggested that we leave a “lasting legacy” to their organization in our estates.  Quoting a childhood neighbor, we’d just like to have enough to pay the guy who shovels the last shovel of dirt.

I wonder if somewhere in cyberspace, some evil trolls are combing through our emails and clicks and cross-referencing them with data about the jobs we’ve had, the organizations we’ve supported and the magazines that we’ve ordered – then divine that we are millionaire empty-nesters with money to burn.

Here is what these trolls would see on the surface: a couple in their late 50s, who are part of AARP and who’ve given money to public television, living in a Zip Code with a lot of high-net-worth individuals. A home-based business that is doing well; an Expedia account; an AKC-registered dog, an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal. Bingo! The type of family that would plunk down a Honda-sized chunk of cash to cruise the Rhine.

Here is what they don’t see: our biggest and most successful investments have been in six big accounts – five of them have now matured and are doing just great. The remaining one is just 14. The reason we’ve sent money to PBS is because I received in return a free DVD set of Ken Burns’ documentary of the Civil War for Bob for Christmas. Our Expedia account is used mainly to book the cheapest flights to places where we can mooch off relatives. While our town includes a lot of private wine cellars and humidors, we store our wine on a few wrought-iron racks from Pier One, and our after-party ritual is sprawling on the couch and watching a football game.

So there you have it. Please stop sending us this travel porn. We’d love to cruise the Danube, but we have a patio and replacement windows in our future.