Saturday, June 16, 2018

Wisdom for My Last Year as a Sixty-something

Seventy once sounded old: Not anymore
    On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom by Cathleen Rountree has been on my bookshelf for more than a decade.  I found it among my mother's belongings when she died in 2006 at the age of 92. I thought I'd read it when I turned 70.

      Back then 70 sounded really old. Now, not so much.

      Today, the first day of my last year as a sixty-something, I decided it was time to read Rountree's book and get a head start on learning what it will be like to be in my Seventies.

      The book, published in 1999, is full of the promised sagacity. There is the usual good advice: Don't act your age. Don't give into aging. Etc. Etc. Etc. And then there are the unexpected tips from these seventy-somethings. Texas journalist Liz Smith admitted she didn't want to travel anymore. She'd rather read a book about history: "You don't read when you travel. You're too tired." British writer Doris Lessing also encouraged life-long learning. "What I think is that it is probable that we are put on this earth in order to learn...I don't know if they have it in America, but here there is an astonishing phenomenon -- everyone is off at night classes learning this and studying that."

An ironic title for an author turning 70.

      My mother had left a bookmark in Rountree's interview with Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American sculptor, so I naturally was very interested in that chapter. My mother had never talked about Asawa and I thought perhaps she had merely placed the bookmark so she could find her place, but when I came upon this line I knew it to be the wisdom that caught my mom's attention:

     "Something very important that I want to tell women is that it's never too late," said Asawa, eerily echoing the theme I have used for this blog, which I began after my mother's death. Asawa, however, adds an astute warning: "But don't wait until it's too late, because you won't have the energy...It's important to learn how to use your small bits of time, your five minutes, your ten minutes, your fifteen minutes. All those begin to count up..."

       Most of the 16 women Rountree interviewed and photographed for On Turning 70 are not household names. At least not to me. Lessing and feminist icon Betty Friedan, both touted on the cover, are the most recognizable. As a former newspaper book reviewer, I had heard of Liz Smith and young adult book writer Madeleine L'Engle (the title of her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time, seemed ironically appropriate for this topic), but the other women -- a political activist, a photographer, a choreographer, a sculptor,  an executive director of a multiracial and multicultural non-profit, a teacher, an analytical psychologist, a poet, a sociologist, a visual storyteller and a Ph.D. student -- were unknown to me.

     Most have died since Rountree conducted these interviews nearly 20 years ago. One of the hard lessons about turning 70 seems to be that we have to get used to the fact that people won't be surprised to learn of our demise. My neighbor Nancy Appunn, whom I wrote about on this blog in 2013 when she traveled across country with another eighty-something to meet up with everyone on their Christmas card lists, told me once that she suspected some people called her up for the sole purpose of finding out if she had keeled over yet. Two years ago Nancy had a stroke, from which she has completely recovered, but I admit each time I stop by to see her, it does cross my mind that she might not answer the door. The other night we bumped into each other in the lobby of the Palladium in St. Petersburg before a performance of "La Traviata." Waiting for her boyfriend who was parking the car, she looked great.

      The surviving women from On Turning 70 who, like Nancy, have lived into their 80s and 90s, also are real dynamos. Here are some of the updates on their lives that I found on the Internet:

An emotional Mitsuye Yamada
watching the 2016
Democratic convention
      Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, the American Chicana feminist and long-time community organizer, will be 93 in December. After her stroke in 2005, she continued to lecture and work with Latino youth groups. Her book De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-colored Century was republished this year as part of Verso's feminist classic series.

    Anna Halprin, the choreographer who broke all the rules of modern dance, turns 98 in July. She still performs and teaches at the Tamalpa Institute which she founded with her daughter in 1978. Her next workshop is in July.

     Mitsuye Yamada, the Japanese-American poet whose first book of poems was about her stay in  Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, turns 95 in July. In 2016, her granddaughter snapped a picture of her watching the Democratic National Convention. She posted it on Twitter with this comment: "Watching my 93 year old grandmother, a lifetime feminist and activist, cry at Hillary Clinton speaking." The photo went viral. Yamada's advice to young people:  "I think the worst kind of thing is passivity There's a Japanese phrase, Shikata ga nai, meaning "it can't be helped" -- it's the way it is. But then you become known as the model minority, and it's just really deadening to be invisible. You should stand up and be counted."

    Betye Saar, the American assemblage artist best known for her transformation of Aunt Jemima from a racist stereotype into a symbol of black female power, turns 92 in July. "You could say I work with dead objects, with things that people have thrown away: old photographs, and so on. But my work is at the crossroads between death and rebirth. Discarded materials have been recycled, so they’re born anew, because the artist has the power to do that," she wrote in 2016. In 2017 she had solo shows in Milan, Los Angeles and at the Tate Modern in London.
Betye Saar's "The Weight of Whiteness," available
for sale at Roberts Projects gallery in Culver City
     And, finally, Leah Friedman, Rountree's Ph.D. student. Friedman went on to get that Ph.D. in mythological studies at age 73 and write books, including The Power of Ritual: How It Can Change Our Lives, published in 2013, and The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old, published last year.  Now approaching 90, Crone Leah, as Rountree called her, recently posted a video on uTube to talk about aging: Leah Friedman: Coming Home 2018 Author Spotlight. "I see my later years as a fascinating exploration of unknown territories," she says.

     "When you think about women in their seventies, who comes to mind?"  Rountree asked in On Turning 70.  She provided a list of famous people who in 1999 were all 70 or older. One was Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature at age 73. Szymborska lived 15 years longer, dying at age 88.

     Four on that list are still with us:

     Rosalyn Carter turns 91 in August. Now the oldest living first lady, she voted for Bernie in the Democratic primary and, unlike her husband (who turns 94 in October), believes the Russian intervention in the presidential elections helped Trump become president.

     Jan Morris turns 92 in October. A Welsh trans woman who began life as James reporting for the Times and the Manchester Guardian, she is an award-winning historian and travel writer. Her latest book, Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony, was published this year.

     Dr. Ruth Weistheimer just turned 90. The famed sex therapist currently is in negotiations to return to television (maybe sex, or at least talking about it, does keep you going).

Angela Landsbury as Aunt March, her 19th shot at an Emmy
   But my favorite long-time survivor from Rountree's list of famous seventy-somethings from 1999 is Angela Lansbury. Rountree noted that Lansbury's hit show,  Murder She Said, had just been cancelled "allegedly because of her age."  Fighting back, Landbury had appeared on 60 Minutes to complain about the cancellation and to talk about ageism.

     Too old for television? Lansbury has had the last laugh. She just turned 93 and she is still a working actor. Last month she appeared as Aunt March in the Little Women miniseries on PBS and is now in contention for an Emmy.  For the first time in her nearly eight decades in show business, she worked with a woman director, Vanessa Caswill. How did she like the experience? In contrast with many of the "shouty" male directors she has put up with, Lansbury said that Caswill comes up to the actors and "whispers in our ears...I loved working that way with her."

        Rountree was 38 when she got the idea for her first book, which she published five years later: Coming into Our Fullness: On Women Turning 40. After the success of that volume, she published On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Midlife Discovery and On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment. When she was 51, she published On Turning 70.
        Next month Rountree herself will turn 70. If she is alive, that is. The last mention of her on the Internet was that she published a book in 2007 called The Movie Lovers' Club: How to Start Your Own Film Group. Her two websites, still up online,  haven't been updated in years. An email I sent to her has as yet gone unanswered. Hopefully, she's busy going to the opera, writing another book (or reading one), fighting for a just cause or falling in love. You know, doing things people do in their Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

Anna Halprin in 2013
        I'm grateful to her for introducing me to these women, both those who are no longer with us and those who are still burning bright in their 90s, aging both gracefully and ferociously. As Anna Halprin, the now 97-year-old dancer, put it back in 1999, "When I look in the mirror, I know I'm 78, but inside I don't feel 78. I'm reminded of something a Japanese painter said: 'When I was 5, I did things for the fun of it. When I was half a hundred my paintings were worthless. When I was 72, I began to understand animals insects, birds, and plants. When I am 80, I will progress a little. When I'm 90, I'll know the essence of things. When I'm 110, I'll know how things are. God of Longevity, give me the time.' I identify with that...At 110, I hope I'll be able to dance things as they are."



Sunday, May 20, 2018

Two Post-Millennials & One Baby Boomer in a Car Getting Coffee


   Passing a billboard that read "Cafe Risque: We Bare All," a Toyota Corolla headed north on Florida's Highway 75 toward Gainesville. The driver and the front-seat passenger were twenty-somethings. The passenger in the backseat was a sixty-something: me.

      Anyone peering inside our car might have assumed that I was a grandmother traveling with my grandchildren. In fact, I had only met the two young women an hour before in a classroom on a college campus in St. Petersburg. All of us were taking a class entitled Florida Springs. My road trip companions were undergraduates seeking degrees in environmental science. I was a senior auditor in the class (which means I wouldn't be doing any of the homework). Taught by USFSP Professor Christopher Meindl, the summer session consisted of only four meetings, on four Saturdays in May, June and July, each time visiting springs in a different part of Florida. This first field trip was to springs in Northern Florida.

      Back on the St. Petersburg campus that morning, the driver, a woman, with long, blonde hair tied back in a bun, had announced that she had room in her backseat for anyone who wanted to join her and her friend for the trip north. I jumped at the chance to be chauffeured to the sites rather than try to drive on my own. "We're off like a dirty shirt," I announced when we took off. That, I had explained, was what my mom always said when our family started on a trip together. "That's funny," one of my road trip companions said. "My dad used to say, 'We're off like a prom dress.'"

      Ah, the first hint of a generational shift.

     As soon as we cleared Tampa traffic and began to see signs for Ocala, the two twenty-somethings decided that they needed a jolt of java. Consulting their electronic devices, they located a Starbucks in a nearby mall. We took the next exit off in search of coffee.

     After our Starbucks stop, we got back on the interstate. Passing a billboard illustrated with babies that read "Pregnant? 18 Days After Conception Are Hearts Are Beating," we headed for our first springs in a state park cryptically called Devil's Millhopper. It was near Gainesville. We had several hours of road ahead.

     The two women in the front seat had met each other and bonded in a class the semester before and now were fast friends. All the way to Gainesville, they chatted non-stop. They talked about the environment (both care deeply about the natural world); college internships (both are doing internships this summer; one will be studying sharks); politics (both are faithful followers of John Oliver and loved Jon Stewart), and the value of exercise. "You are my hero," the driver told her friend, a rosy-cheeked brunette who looked like a marathon runner, "because you get up every day and work out for an hour." The brunette talked about her husband whom, she pointed out, was "much older" than she.
He was 28, she told me, when I asked. The blonde talked about how excited she was to be moving into a house near campus. She was contemplating furnishing her tiny bedroom with a hammock and a futon. She would sleep in the hammock and use the futon when she needed a bed for two.

     The ride clearly was going to be as much of an education as the class.

     Being able to observe the generation now entering and attending college has been one of the perks of auditing classes at USFSP.  I never had children and I live far from my siblings and their offsprings, so these encounters have been rare occasions for me to meet Gen-Zers (or Post-Millennials, as some call them) up close and personal. It has been an eye-opener.

     These young men and women live in a world that is far more diverse than the one I knew growing up. They appear to me far more comfortable in their own skins, far more tolerant of each other's differences than many of us were. They treat each other with more equality and respect than I remember men and women doing in my classroom settings.

     I will never get used to their speech patterns, however, especially the way they make the end of declarative sentences sound like a question. (Kevin McGeever, a former St. Petersburg Times colleague, complains that they use the word "super" as a modifier for everything.) They often make me feel old, not because they are ageist, but because they are so deferential to me. But they also are more polite to each other than my contemporaries were. Their slavish devotion to their cellphones at first makes me think they are as empty-headed as Valley Girls, but when I listen to what they are saying, I am often impressed. They generally are thoughtful and, as they might say, super aware of what is going on in the world, thanks to those handheld devices.

     Many of them are fierce environmentalists. They are going to have to live with the consequence of climate change and they know it.

    When we reached Devil's Millhopper, again thanks to those ever-faithful handheld devices, we entered the park through a hauntingly beautiful pine forest. We were at the park to see a 120-feet deep sinkhole, fed by 12 springs. Tourists usually are able to hike all the way down to the bottom of this bowl-shaped cavity, but last fall Hurricane Irma washed away all the wooden staircases that provided access. The more hearty among us were disappointed by that, but I for one was content to merely peer down into the hole from afar and imagine those bones of animals in its depths that give the park its satanic moniker. The hopper part of the name is a nod to the area's grist mills.

     Our next stop was O'Leno State Park. That name is a contraction of Old Leno, a town that became a ghost town when the railroads came to Florida. Once in the park, we staggered across a suspension bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Thirties and picked our way along the river bank through a forest of downed trees and clusters of cedar knees, finally arriving at an expanse of water where the Santa Fe River, literally disappears underground. The "natural sink" takes the waters of the river down through a network of caverns, only to resurface again three miles away in River Rise Preserve State Park.

       Our last stop was Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, the site of one the largest artesian springs ever discovered. Once privately owned, the spring was Florida's first tourist attraction. Famed for its Glass-Bottom boat tours, visitors have been coming to the park to marvel at the clear, turquoise waters since the 19th century.

     Now the tourists share the space with feral rhesus monkeys. Signs warned us to beware of them: State officials consider them a health hazard (they have tested positive for Herpes B). Most likely the monkeys were introduced into the park in 1938 by a boat operator who wanted to add flavor to his Jungle Cruise ride (and not, as it is sometimes reported, by movie producers who filmed a Tarzan movie in the area in 1939).

     Most of the students in the class went on a hike in search of those monkeys, but a few of us -- post-millennials and baby boomers alike -- stayed behind to stare at the eerie reflections of the glass-bottom boats and tree trunks in the park's clear, turquoise waters and try out the white rocking chairs thoughtfully set along the water's edge. No generational bias here.

     When I returned home, I looked up the series on Florida Springs written by Craig Pittman that our teacher had recommended. Pittman, another St. Petersburg Times colleague of mine, had written it in 2012 for the Tampa Bay Times. In his introductory piece, entitled "Vanishing Springs," Pittman raised the alarm:

     The springs in Florida are dying. All the places we were scheduled to see in our class were in danger.

     "The water in many springs no longer boils up like a fountain, the way they have for centuries," Pittman wrote six years ago.  "The flow has slowed. In some places it has even stopped or begun flowing backward."

     The water that was coming out was polluted by nitrates, a pollution that fuels the growth of toxic algae blooms. Those blooms not only were choking the springs, Pittman warned. They were a health hazard. Even worse, the fresh water coming out of the springs was showing signs of a growing saltiness which meant the limestone on which the state's fresh water supply lies was being breached, putting the whole of Florida's fresh water supply at risk.

     "We don't care. We say we care. We give it lip service. But we don't care," David Still, an engineer specializing in hydrology, told Pittman.

     Still, who was a former director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, blamed the over pumping by utilities for the springs' decline. "The laws have allowed the degradation of those springs, and I don't think we as a society are going to get it changed."

     Now, six years later, the situation is even worse. Is there still no one around to "get it changed"?
     On my next road trip with the Post-Millennials in June I plan to tell them I am counting on them, counting on them to be the generation to save Florida's sharks, to save Florida's springs, to save Florida's fresh water supply.

     "Okay," I can hear them reply, their voices going up into a question. "No pressure."










Friday, May 11, 2018

Define Grownup

    This week AARP invited me and other members to watch an advanced screening of Book Club (due out May 18) as part of their Movies for Grownups program, which actually gives out awards for such films (last year they gave Helen Mirren a well-deserved lifetime achievement award). The screening was held at the Regal Park Place Stadium 16 in Pinellas Park. Let me say in advance that I am grateful to the AARP for offering the free showing at a theater with plushy seats complete with leg raises at the push of a button.

     Sadly, however, the movie made me feel embarrassed for the four veteran stars who starred in it. Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen were, alas, not given grown-up roles and certainly not grown-up dialogue.

     Could the blame lie in the fact that the movie, touted to be one about women bonding over books, was co-written by a man and directed by him? No, I am not one of those women who believe that men cannot write fully textured women characters with realistic dialogue. What about Jorge Amado in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands or Ian McEwan in Atonement?  Or Steven Rogers, whose previous work included the forgettable Stepmom, penning two unforgettable female characters in I, Tonya?  

     By contrast, Book Club never gets into the psyches of its main characters. The four women merely are pawns in a madcap series of improbable scenes. Slapstick trumps insight.

     The movie opens with the four main female characters getting together for their regular book club meeting. They have been discussing books together since college. Each is presented with a background that is entirely believable. Diane (Diane Keaton) is a recent widow whose two grown children treat her like an invalid. Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a hotel owner who seeks men for pleasure not intimacy and not, god forbid, for marriage. Carol (Mary Steenbergen)'s once steamy marriage has cooled since her husband's retirement. Sharon is a divorced federal judge whose bumbling ex-husband (played by Ed Begley, Jr.) is dating an airhead bombshell who could be his daughter (played by . 

     Well, the last bit is a bit of a stretch, but it could happen.

     Instead of exploring the very different pathways taken by these four friends, however, the movie plays their circumstances for laughs. In fact, Book Club seems to go out of its way to present these women in situations that strain credibility. The buttoned-up Sharon is shown staggering out of the back seat of her car at the end of her Bumble date. Vivian's husband (played by Craig T. Nelson) is also shown staggering around. He has a permanent boner. Vivian has secretly given him Viagra to spice up their sex life. 

     The most incredible scene, however, involves Diane: She literally stumbles over a man on her flight out to Arizona to see her kids. Played by Andy Garcia looking like "The Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials, he turns out to be a pilot and, of course, fabulously wealthy. But just when she slips away for a tryst at his desert spread, her kids track her down with the help of a policeman and cart her away. There is so much wrong with that scenario, it's hard to know where to begin. Where in the world did those kids find a cop who would track down a mom whose phone has gone to voicemail? What woman leaves The Most Interesting Man in the World to go live in her children's basement?

    And Vivian? You might at first mistake her for Grace, the character Fonda plays in the TV series Grace and Frankie. Like Grace, she is a successful businesswoman with issues. But the screenwriters of Book Club should have examined more closely why that TV series work: Yes, we laugh at Grace and Frankie, but we also are moved to tears as we witness their often difficult female bonding and their struggles with aging.  
   Rarely in Book Club is there a moment when I felt like I was looking at real people instead of  cardboard characters invented for wacko plot lines. One true moment is during that Bumble date when George (played by Richard Dreyfuss) awkwardly asks Sharon for a kiss. Another is the line uttered by The Most Interesting Man in the World as the kids are hauling their mom off:  "You have a right to be happy, Diane." And there are genuine moments between Vivian and her ex-boyfriend Arthur (played by Don Johnson who thankfully has lost his slick and is actually appealing). Here, the screenwriters offer up some quirky details (Vivian confesses, for example, that what she loves best is not sex but having her arm tickled) that flesh these characters out.

     These moments, however, are fleeting. Who are these women? We never really find out. The screenwriters insist on defining them primarily by their relationships with men. Whatever happened to Gloria Steinem's "Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle"? 

     For their Book Club, by the way, Vivian, Sharon, Diane and Carol are reading E.L. James' erotic s&m three-part series Fifty Shades of Grey -- an awesome product placement for any author.  Alas, alas, alas, they might have made a better choice.