Monday, October 10, 2016

The Last Book, The Last Lecture, The Last Chapter: Lessons in How to Live

     In an essay in the New York Times called "My Own Life," neurologist Oliver Sacks announced to the world with characteristic bluntness that he was "face to face with dying." An eye tumor whose treatment nine years earlier had cost him the lost of one eye had metastasized. The 81-year-old best-selling author was counting his life in days and months, not years.

     Three months later Sacks published his Last Book: On the Move: A Life. In reviewing the book for The New York Review of Books, Jerome Groopman of the Harvard Medical School admitted that Sacks' revelation changed the way he read the autobiography:

    "Reading On the Move and knowing that Sacks is facing a terminal illness heightens certain parts of the book."

      Even the title of Sacks' autobiography -- On the Move -- resonated differently when you realized that this would be Sacks' Last Book.

      Readers sense that authors writing "somewhere towards the end," to use the phrase that nonagenarian Diana Athill chose for her very late-in-life memoir, have a unique perspective to share. They aren't wrong.

     Remember Randy Pausch? He was the computer science professor who was scheduled to give a routine end-of-the- school-year speech at Carnegie Mellon entitled "Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" when he was disagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. Professors commonly call these talks "Last Lectures," but this time the label took on a more poignant meaning: It really was going to be the last lecture for 47-year-old Pausch. Suddenly phrases that he uttered, phrases that we might have heard before and even thought of as cliches -- "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think" -- took on a burning intensity. Pausch's Last Lecture, posted on the Internet, instantly went viral and was later published in book form.

    Those who measure their time in months -- either because of terminal illness or advanced age -- have a different take on what matters. They are no longer projecting far into the future. They are feeling the fierce urgency of now.

     In his New York Times essay, Sacks expressed that sense of exigency:  "I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can."

    Sacks said he took inspiration from the last words of philosopher David Hume who, upon learning of his terminal illness at age 65, wrote "My Own Life," a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776: 

    “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

     Life becomes more, not less, intense when we are aware of its shortening. What characterizes these Last Books and Last Lecture is not their focus on death, but their focus on life. With death in sight, life does not diminish but is augmented.  A life of striving to achieve some sort of recognition -- a job, a sale, a marriage proposal -- gives way to a life that concentrates on internal measures of success: "ardour in study...gaiety in company." No wonder the words of someone who is "somewhere towards the end" take on heightened meanings.

     I first wrote about Diana Athill and her memoir Somewhere Towards the End in 2013.  Back then I lauded her for her late blooming publishing successes: a memoir, chronicling her 50 years working as an editor, published at age 83; a second book about her English childhood published two year later, and, best of all, a National Book Critic Circle Award for Somewhere Towards the End, written when she was 91.

     "Success in old age, when things have stopped really mattering, has a frivolous sort of charm unlike anything one experiences in middle age," Athill said after receiving that award.

     In quoting Athill's reaction to all the attention she was receiving, I conveniently glossed over that phrase "when things have stopped really mattering." Now I realize that one of the "things that stopped really mattering" to Athill were all those pats on the back from others. Not that she didn't enjoy her late-in-life fame. I'm sure she did. But what really mattered to Athill ran far deeper than a search for celebrity.

      I should have been tipped off by Athill's choice of title. Calling her book Somewhere Towards the End reveals just how acutely aware she was that that memoir might be her Last Book. When facing such a formidable main event as death, success is a side show.

       Of course, even when we think death is in sight, we can never be certain just when that end will come. When best-selling author and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was told at age 40 that he had a deadly cancer with a median mortality of only eight months, he reasoned that the median is a halfway point. That meant that 50 percent of those with his cancer would die in eight months, but another 50 percent could live longer, even a lot longer. He was determined to be on the latter side of that statistic. Gould lived another 20 years before dying of a totally unrelated cancer at age 60.

     As for Athill, Somewhere Towards the End wasn't her Last Book after all. Now 98 and living in a retirement home with others who are 90 and older, she is still writing and publishing. Last year she came out with her sixth memoir with a title that tells us she's as surprised as anyone that she is still Alive, Alive Oh!  

     In that memoir, subtitled And Other Things That Matter, Athill evokes French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who suggested that we think about our deaths every day in order to get used to it as a natural part of life. When my grandmother reached her late nineties, one of my sisters complained that all she talked about was death. "Well," her wry husband pointed out, "it is her next big event."

     In Alive, Alive Oh!, Athill devotes the Last Chapter to her "next big event." Calling death not an "end of life" but a "part of life," she writes about her own death -- and the death of her fellow residents -- in a stark, unsentimental way:

     "Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare."

     Oliver Sacks, who died six months after his New York Times essay appeared, also talked about preparation and about focusing on things that matter in the months that he had left:

     "Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

     On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well.)"

     A good prescription for all our lives, don't you think?





Monday, September 26, 2016

Fashion's New Role Models: Never Too Thin? No, Never Too Old!

Runway models have never been role models for me. I am not particularly tall and, except in elementary school, I have never been thin. I have never worn make up and have never been over-concerned with how I look.

But runways models -- and models in fashion magazines -- have affected, no doubt, the way some men have looked at me. And they certainly have affect how millions of young girls look at themselves.

So it's good news that the industry finally has begun to rethink its part in perpetuating the idea that the paragon of female beauty is a tall, anorexic 25-year-old. Movements against fat-shaming have been working. More and more fashion magazines have been featuring models who have some meat on their bones. We've been telling men for years that size doesn't matter. It's great to get some reciprocity.

Still, it wasn't until my niece, Christine Kavalauskas, sent me a video about an older runway model that I realized I had my own set of stereotypes when it came to thinking about who deserved to walk the catwalk. It never occurred to me that never too thin could be replaced by never too old.

Meet Deshun Wang: male, Chinese and ripped -- and, at 80, the world's oldest runway model. The actor turned model became an internet sensation in 2015 when -- at the age of 79 -- he walked the catwalk for the first time during China Fashion Week.  In his inspiring video, which Wang created and posted on Weibo and which he made available on YouTube this month, the 80-year-old known as "The Hottest Grandpa" tells his story: "When you think it's too late, be careful you don't let that be your excuse for giving up."

I challenge you to watch this without a smile on your face:

Wang's story got me wondering: Were there other "role models" in the fashion world challenging our expectations of who gets to end up on the runway? (Feel free, by the way, to take "runway" as a metaphor for other successes in life).

Plenty, as it turns out.

Last year The Huffington Post offered up five uplifting moments from the previous 356 days as proof that "The Fashion Industry Is Getting More Accepting" -- fashion projects that honored women of all ages, races and backgrounds:  a Dove ad celebrating girls with curly hair; a photo shoot showing black women of all shades; 80-year-old author Joan Didion as the face of the French label Céline; the first Down Syndrome model participating in New York Fashion week, and the first plus-size model in the Pirelli calendar.

The inclusion of older models, like Joan Didion, has been a trend of sorts. Last year 93-year-old Iris Apfel modeled for both Alexis Bittar, the fashion jewelry company, and upscale Kate Spade. Earlier this year Nicola Griffin, at 56, became the oldest model ever to appear in the infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the magazine's annual display of, um, beachwear. "More of this, please," said The HuffPost, referring to Griffin, not the scanty bathing suits.  In April, Griffin appeared in a steamy lingerie shoot for the U.K.-based Slink magazine, with the heading "Size 16 & 50 plus still has it!" More of this, indeed.

Iris Apfel, 93, models Alexis Bittar
Nicola Griffin, 56, in Slink Magazine

"Older," however, I discovered is a relative term.

In a slide show offered by the Los Angeles Times with the heading "Demand for Older Models Grows,"  a blurb read: "Models 35 and older are in demand as boomers want ‘to see someone they relate to." Yet only two in the slide show came close to the age of baby boomers -- people born in the baby boom just after World War II: 58-year-old Pia Gronning and Carmen Dell-Orifice, described as "in her 70s." All the other models were under 40, young enough to be children of boomers.

Tracey Norman's story, however, shatters all the runway stereotypes -- of age, race and gender.  Norman is a black transgender model who, at 63, is enjoying a sensational comeback after being ostracized from the fashion world for decades.

In the 1970s, Norman was the Clairol's first black transgender model, but the hair dye company didn't know about the transgender part. Given the intolerance of the times, "I had to hide my truth," Norman explains in a video posted on YouTube. Then during a photo shoot for Essence magazine, a hairdresser betrayed her secret. The photos from that shoot were never used. The agency she worked with told her there were no jobs for her. No one admitted why the jobs had dried up, but Norman understood.

She moved to Paris and, still guarding her secret, found modeling work again, but when she returned to the U.S. she found the doors of the fashion world were still slammed shut: "Oh, oh, you're the Tracey." She ended up getting involved in the drag-ball world, winning a beauty pageant sponsored by Sally Jesse Raphael. She worked in a shoe store.

Then at the end of last year,  The Cut did a profile of Norman that brought her story to a wider public: "The First Black Trans Model Had Her Face on a Box of Clairol. No one knew her secret. Until they did."

Clairol saw the profile and called her. The company wanted the trans model to be part of its new ad campaign encouraging women to celebrate what makes them unique.

"I just had so many emotions going through me. I was being accepted for who I was, and they wanted me to come back as that person, and not be something other than what I truly am—a woman of color, of course."

Norman's face was on a box of Clairol again -- at age 63.

The irst Black Trans Model Had Her Face on a Box of Cl


Saturday, September 17, 2016


    This is a story of coincidences -- although I don't really believe in coincidences.

     It is the story of why, after a long absence, I have decided to start up this blog again.

     It is a story that celebrates creative late bloomers, people whose creativity has no expiration date, who are creative until the day they die -- and sometimes even after.

     Late last night when I heard that playwright Edward Albee had died at the age of 88, I was transported back to the day more than 30 years ago when I went to his Tribeca loft to interview him for an airline magazine. Albee was rehearsing a play called "Marriage Play," due to debut in Vienna the following week. I had recently been divorced so the play had a particular resonance for me.

Photo by Michael Childers, 2012 (The Edward F. Albee Foundation website)

     When I heard the news of Albee's death, I wondered if I had a copy of the piece I had written about that visit tucked away somewhere. But quickly I realized that even if I did, I probably could never find it in the mounds of boxes filled with clips and papers I had stored in my garage. The airline magazine which published the piece had long gone out of business -- TWA didn't even exist anymore. I went to bed, giving up any hope of putting my hands on the piece. I contented myself with the vague memory of that day in New York, sipping white wine with one of my favorite playwrights.

   Forgetting all about that long-ago memory, I woke up this morning and began to busy myself with a project that I had been putting off starting for months: the creation of an inventory of everything I owned. Everything, that is, that is stored in the house where I have been living with my second husband for more than 20 years. A lot of stuff accumulates over two decades and I wasn't looking forward to the job. The creation of an inventory was prompted by a suggestion made by our lawyer more than a year ago when we drew up our wills. She wanted us to add an addendum to the wills that would state what should be done with our earthly possessions in the event of our deaths. My husband and I agreed to first take an inventory of those possessions.

    I decided to start with my office: plenty of stuff to catalogue there. Almost immediately, I fell upon a stack of yellowing papers in a file drawer: the first drafts of profiles I had written for magazines, typed out on my old Remington, no doubt, during my freelancing days long ago. Among the pieces -- and here is that amazing coincidence -- was the original, unedited version of the story of my meeting Albee. Re-reading it, I realized that I had forgotten whole chunks of that visit to his Tribeca loft and particularly the curious answer to a question I had posed to Albee. "Where do you do the bulk of your writing?" I had asked him. "Airplanes," he had replied. "I find airplanes -- especially on long flights -- a very good place to concentrate."

    When we were saying our good-byes at the end of the interview, I must have pictured Albee scribbling away on his long, upcoming flight to Vienna because I concluded my piece with this line:

     "Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realize with a start, he will once again begin Act One."

     Re-reading that line, I thought: We all need to have the courage to begin Act One...again and again. To take on new projects -- or finished old ones -- and remain creative until the end.

     It was in that spirit, I decided to re-launch this blog, celebrating late bloomers.

     Albee may not seem at first to be a role model for "late" bloomers. He bloomed, after all, relatively early on in his career. He almost won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" when he was 35 and won it for "A Delicate Balance" when he was 39.

     In the 1980s, however, he experienced a run of flops on Broadway; critics scoffed at his efforts. He began to drink and fight with producers.

     But he sobered up -- thanks to AA and the support of his partner of 32 years, Canadian sculptor Jonathan Thomas -- and he eventually began to write Act Ones again.
Albee's last play premiered when he was 82.
     In 1994 he won his third Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Three Tall Women." He was 66. In 2005, at age 77, he was awarded the special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. His last play ("Me, Myself and I") premiered five years later in 2010 when he was 82. At 83 he was directing revivals of his plays off Broadway. And throughout his career he presided over the Edward Albee Foundation, encouraging writers and artists who gathered under his name for yearly Long Island retreats.

    When I met him in that Tribeca loft, he was 59.

     By then he had gained the wisdom of an aging creative. As he was approaching his sixties, he was less concerned with striving for recognition and more interested in concentrating on his own discoveries. "I have been both overpraised and underpraised," he told an interviewer. "I assume by the time I finish writing -- and I plan to go on writing until I'm 90 or gaga -- it will all equal itself out. You can't invove yourself with the vicissitudes of fashion or critical response."

     At the time of our visit, Albee was more celebrated in Europe than in his native land -- "Marriage Play," after all, had been commissioned by The English Theater in Vienna, not by an American theater -- but he seemed unbothered by this fall from U.S. attention. What mattered was his own satisfaction.

     At one point in our conversation, he contrasted the sensibilities of American and European theater audiences. Europeans, he told me, were more willing to be tolerant of ideas, more willing to go to the theater "to suffer an experience."

     When I expressed surprise that we should have to suffer when we go to the theater, he told me that he wasn't using the word "suffer" in the sense of embracing pain, but rather evoking an older meaning of the word: to be willing to be open, to expose oneself to an experience that may be disturbing.

     "God knows, when I go to the theater I don't want to emerge from it exactly the same person that I went into it as," he told me. "I want to be made to think about something, I want to be changed in some way, at least to be forced to reconsider my perceptions. Because life is very short. Why waste your time?"

     The airline magazine cut out the comments Albee made about suffering. I think they were the wisest thing he told me. Keeping ourselves open to life in all its disturbances seem to me to be the best definition of creative aging.

     God knows, I don't want to emerge from life exactly the same person I was when I came in.

Here is the original, uncut version of my article on Edward Albee: 

"Hi. Welcome and thanks for coming," says Edward Albee, greeting a handful of guests seated in a semi-circle in the middle of his spacious loft in New York's Tribeca. Invited to see the playwright's latest work, a two-character, two act play called "Marriage Play," we are staring at two leather chairs, cordoned off by asking tape on the wooden floor. At the far end of the voluminous room, which looks like an eclectic art gallery, a shaft of sunshine from a skylight, like a moment of divine intervention, is illuminating a large cross sculpture on a wall of exposed brick.

We are in the fourth week of rehearsals," explains Albee, whose pepper-colored hair and mustache have added liberal dashes of salt since his first full-length play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," assured him a place of honor in the history of American theater. This, he adds, is the final run through before the cast leaves for Vienna where the play will open at the English Theater, which commissioned the work.

Dressed in a dark grey sweatshirt, baggy pants and sneakers, Albee still manages to look boyish despite his 59 years. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he has an air of modesty about him that is almost unnerving.

"I am the author and director of the vast cast," he deadpans. "We pay no attention to the economies of theater so we have a cast of two -- but if you have the right actors that's enough." Kathleen Butler, he announces, will play Gillian and Tom Klunis, her husband Jack.

"It is 3:30 on a weekday afternoon in a suburb or a city -- I'm not sure. This is a living room," Albee tells us, indicating the masking tape. "Out there is a garden," he adds, pointing straight at us. "And if this were not a wall it would lead to the kitchen." He waves his hand toward a sketch by Lipchitz of two figures locked in combat hung in a heavy wooden frame. "Have I forgotten anything?"

A Siamese cat is dispatched to the kitchen. Albee, warning us that he may stop the action at any time, takes his seat beyond the masking tape. "Curtain going up," someone intones.

The play is dense with ideas and lengthy monologues. Gillian and Jack are allowed to lock in verbal and they physical battle without interruption. I wonder: Is the author of the director watching this play? Albee shows no sign of emotion as he carefully follows the script in front of him. "He's really nervous although you'd never know it," a friend whispers.

"You can't worry about what people think," Albee counters later. "You can't allow yourself to worry about it or you become a nervous wreck -- or worse you become owned by the critics of owned by commercial pressure." All his other guests have departed. He has broken open a bottle of white wine, but only pours a glass for me. "There are some people who want to write their first big his and sell out to Hollywood as quickly as they can. Some people you just can't stop from selling out. And there are others who can't figure out how to do it," he says, his fingers gripped around a coffee mug. "But there are still those who are serious about their craft, who just go about their business.

Albee's own work keeps him occupied "16 months out of the year": teaching, lecturing, overseeing the Albee Foundation, which includes an artist colony four miles from his home at Montauk on Long Island, and, of course, writing plays. "Where do you do the bulk of your writing?" I ask. "Airplanes," he replies solemnly. He is serious: "I find airplanes -- especially on long flights -- a very good place to concentrate. I used to do it on ocean liners. I would get on an ocean liner to Europe and I would have a play written by the time I got there. But they've taken most of them off. Now I have to rely on airplanes...and this may be a critical comment on my work. I don't know," he adds with a wry smile.

"The business of playwriting can be tough," he admits. "We have a TV and a film tradition in this country," he points out. "Generally speaking Europeans tend to be a bit more tolerant of ideas, a bit more willing to go to the theater to suffer an experience."

 I am puzzled. Do we have to suffer when we go to the theater? "I don't mean suffer in that sense," Albee told me, like a patient teacher. "If you look up suffer, an older use of the word, it doesn't mean pain but to be willing to be open to an experience, to be expose to an experience that may be disturbing." He is clearly delighted that the conversation is turning on a word. "God knows, when I go to the theater I don't want to emerge from it exactly the same person that I went into it as. I want to be made to think about something, I want to be changed in some way, at least to be forced to reconsider my perceptions. Because life is very short. Why waste your time?"

The loft's walkways, wooden beams and objets d'art are now streaked with evening shadows. Albee accompanies me down the building's drafty warehouse elevator to street level to say good-by. I am struck once again by his diffidence. He is, no doubt, already thinking of the next day's long flight to Vienna. 

Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realize with a start, he will once again begin Act One.