keeping my teeth

ImageWhen the dentist asked if I felt like keeping all my teeth for the rest of my life, that’s when I started to feel my age. The rest of my life? I started to count. How many years does “the rest of your life” mean? Maybe it’s actually not that many — 30 if I’m lucky, 20 or 25 if I’m like the average American 60-year-old woman. I don’t like making such calulations, since when I look backward, 20 or 25 years is the blink of an eye ago.

So, yes, I said to him, I’d rather keep all my teeth for the rest of my life if possible, thank you very much.

The question got me thinking about Grandpa and his dentures. Back in the 1960s, when we were growing up, being old automatically meant you had a mouth full of false teeth. In fact, when Avuncular was little he used to ask how long he’d have to wait until he was old enough to have teeth you could take out every night and put in a little water glass by the bathroom sink. He and I would wake up early when our grandparents were sleeping over, so we could stand next to him as he stood at the mirror with a collapsed old-man face and would transform before our eyes: grab the top teeth from the glass, shake them out, put them in, shake out the bottom teeth and put them in, and there he is again, our handsome Grandpa.

No one has dentures these days, so what we’re going to do with these problem teeth at the back of my mouth is put in crowns rather than yank them out. It’s a long slow process of oral restoration.

Is this the first of a long line of such procedures? Will a doctor soon ask me if I feel like keeping both my hips for the rest of my life, or if I’d like him to insert a fake one to replace the one that’s wearing away? How about one of my organs? My kidneys are likely to putter out, if they’re anything like my father’s were (and I suspect they are), so maybe that will be a question some day, too. Do you want these kidneys? Do you want a different one? Do you want to plug yourself up to this dialysis machine and pretend you don’t have kidneys at all, just let the machine do the work for you?

As Ur-Momma says whenever she notices changes in her skin or hair or ability to breathe when walking up the hill near her apartment, a body isn’t designed to live 89 years. No, it’s not, no matter how much care you take in how you feed it and exercise it (neither of which I’m doing quite enough of). So what happens when it starts falling apart, by inches — especially when you’re only 60? My two back teeth might be the beginning of a long line of decay — decay is actually the word my dentist used in describing the problem that leads me to need a crown — and I suspect that all I’ll be able to do about it, at least for a while, is try to shore things back up as well as I can.

(By the way, the teeth in that photo belonged to George Washington. I saw them in a photo on Twitter posted today by Lindsay Fitzharris, a British medical historian and creator of a web publication called The Chirugeons Apprentice.)

photos of empty nesters

5920123882_08625a21cb_zI love this series of photos of empty nesters standing in the room their kids used to live in, which was recently written up in Slate. The project, by Dona Schwartz (who also took a series of photos of couples at the other end of parenthood, standing in the rooms they were preparing for the babies they were about to have), is a fascinating one, trying to capture the emotions of this particular rite of passage using images rather than words. But there’s a weird sameness to the photos, too, and I can’t figure out whether this is reassuring or discomfiting. Almost all the couples (and one solitary mother, who is either divorced or widowed; the text doesn’t say) stand side by side in the bedroom of their college-age son or daughter. Maybe it’s because the kids are still coming home for school breaks that the beds are still there, though some are piled so high with boxes, books, and clothes (and, in one case, a discarded exercise ball) that it’s hard to imagine Junior actually finding any place to sleep.

The only couple that’s gotten rid of the bed is the oldest one, whose children have been out of the house for five years. (The length of empty-nestdom in these families, at least those whose photos were used in the Slate piece, ranges from two months to five years.) No one in these photos is smiling. Is that the way they really feel when they go into their children’s empty rooms, sad and lonely and regretful? Or are those hangdog expressions just the ones Schwartz chose among the many photos she took of each couple, because she was trying to say something about how it feels when a child grows up and leaves? Her own picture, alongside her partner Ken, is the last one in the Slate collection. She says her somber expression is largely because she’s sad about the end of this interesting project. But shouldn’t she and Ken be a little more elated now that the last of their SIX children has flown the coop?

The expressions of these empty nesters are a contrast to the ones Schwartz caught in her series of parents-to-be. While there were a surprisng number of serious (frightened?) expressions among the younger subjects, about half of them were smiling, some quite expansively, as they looked happily into the future, their eyes shining and their faces lit with expectation.

ratcheting down

ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant gchat contact with her — chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta even for asking. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

old woman & shadow of ladyI had carefully chosen the movie to take my mother to last weekend. I figured that a foreign film would mean subtitles, thus getting around the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to hear. I also figured, based on the reviews, that “Like Father, Like Son” would be gentle, easy-to-follow, and probably thought-provoking. An added plus: it was playing at our local movie theatre at 11 am on a Sunday.

The film is about a young Japanese couple with a six-year-old son they adore, who are suddenly told that this boy had been given to them mistakenly at the hospital, which had switched two newborn babies at birth. What to do, then — keep the boy they had grown to love for the past six years, or switch him for the one that was biologically theirs? I figured the plot would raise the kind of topics Ur-Momma has always loved to talk about — nature versus nurture, what makes us who we are, the perfectability of the human heart.

She was good company, even if at 89 she took her time getting in and out of the car or up and down the escalator; she seemed pretty excited to be out at the movies, and to be out with iDaddy and me. But when the lights came up at the end of the film — a film which, by the way, was quite affecting, beautifully acted, and elegantly told — she turned to me and said, “I was lost; I couldn’t follow it at all.”

This is a woman who, feeling hemmed-in by her ordinary working-class immigrant family in Brooklyn, devoured the public library’s copies of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe through her teens and twenties; who read the New Yorker cover to cover for as long as I can remember; who always knew what had been in the New York Times that day, and always had a strong opinion about it; who was happiest when she was at an art museum, a Broadway play, or, on a few occasions in her life, traveling with my father in Europe. Now she couldn’t follow the simple chronology of a very simple film.

What worries her the most about aging, she’s always told my brother Avuncular and me, is the prospect of losing “my head.” That’s what worries me, too. “If you don’t have your head, who are you?” she occasionally asks. That’s it, exactly. If you don’t have a lively interior life, and a recollection of all the escapades that made it amount to something, what DO you have?

Today an article in the New York Times seemed to suggest that the cognitive losses of aging might not be as big a deal as we once thought — that they might actually be the result of having accumulated so much information that retrieving it is just a little slower. Maybe because it came on the heels of my movie escapade with Ur-Momma, it seemed to me that the article was straining a little too hard to find something upbeat to say.

The article described a study that used Big Data to simulate the over-large vocabulary of a typical educated oldster, compared to the smaller vocabulary of a typical educated twentysomething. Grabbing a word from the bigger database took a longer time than grabbing one from the smaller database. It was kind of self-evident, and basically a computer model of something people have suspected for a while: that while an old person’s fluid intelligence (speed, analytic reasoning, short-term memory) might decline, his or her crystallized intelligence (knowledge, vocabulary, expertise) actually grew. And it suggested something else: that the increase in crystallized intelligence might actually CAUSE the decline in fluid intelligence. (To know whether this really applies to humans, of course, it will have to be tested in humans, and not just run on a database.)

But fluid intelligence isn’t exactly what I’m worried about in Ur-Momma’s case anyway. What happened at the movies wasn’t a delay in simple word retrieval, which is annoying but benign. It was not even, really, a matter of a broader, scarier kind of forgetfulness. What happened was loss of the ability to think coherently, to follow a narrative, to hold a thought and add another thought to it, and then another. This is the stuff of an intellectual life, which has always been so important to Ur-Momma. If she can’t read a novel or carry on an interesting conversation, if she can’t follow even the most basic movie plot, she’ll be losing some of the few elements of her life that, for as long as I’ve known her, have made it worth living.

in the background

tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_1280Last night iDaddy and I watched “20 Feet From Stardom,” a wonderful documentary about backup singers (or, as they called themselves, background singers) for pop stars like Sting, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. The women in the film were amazing singers, and a couple of them wanted to break out from the background and become solo successes. They made some recordings, gave some concerts, appeared on some TV shows — and then, almost to a woman, they flamed out. (The exception was Darlene Love, who, after a series of bad breaks and setbacks in her youth, finally made it big, and a couple of years ago even entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Why weren’t these background singers bigger successes? They had the voices, and the yearning, and the willingness to put in the time and to work hard. The film suggested some explanations for why some made it while others didn’t: Luck. Pluck. Looking right. Sounding right. Hitting the right market niche. Getting the right record producer, the right manager, the right moment in the sun. Following up a first success with a second one; following up quickly enough.

It all sounded painfully familiar to me, a perenially midlist author forever striving for the bestseller list. Is this what happens to writers, too? Does success in publishing also depend on a series of incalculable lucky breaks? Are talent and desire never enough?

And is it time for me, at the fading end of my professional life, to start redefining what success even means?

The film was great fun to watch, especially the concert scenes, but in the end it was quite sad. It was all about fame and not-fame, about making it just when you wanted it most, and especially about deciding whether the goal is to become famous or simply to become as good as you can be. The women who tried and failed to go solo seemed happy, because they said that when it came down to it, all they really wanted to do was sing.

Now that I’m 60 — an age that, frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around — I’m starting to think that it might be time for me to gradually, and graciously, begin handing the reins of success over to the next generation. In my case, my professional next generation includes my own literal next generation, my two daughters. In a way this complicates things; in a way it makes things easier.

I was glad that I was, by coincidence, watching the film on the very day I had gone back to posting on this blog. If the background singers can decide that all they really want to do is sing, no matter who’s listening, maybe through this revitalized blog I can see whether, in the end, all I really want to do is write, even if there’s no one there.

she’s b-a-a-a-a-ck

BeRdbx9IcAALhTFMore than three years have passed since my last Momma Loshen post. I can tell how long ago that was by looking at the posts themselves from pre-2010; in those days, I was still typing two spaces after every period, the way I’d been taught to back in junior high. That was before I read the article by Farhad Manjoo in Slate (who since has moved from Slate, first to WSJ and then to the New York Times, another indication of how long three years can be) that told me that double spacing between sentences was totally last-century.

A lot else has happened in those three years, not just to Farhad Manjoo but to me. Most of it has been good. iDaddy and I celebrated our 40th anniversary with a lovely party at our apartment, attended by some of our dearest friends from out of town (two friends from college and their spouses, one wonderful couple from the earliest years of our marriage) and a handful of new friends from around here (a bunch of people from various book clubs,  a few of our favorites from our building), as well as my brother and our girls. Nutmeg, who’s 29 now, has a terrific job in journalism and started dating a lovely guy. Meta, now 33, got tired of being married to Wilco, so about a year ago she took the dog and moved to Brooklyn — where, as far as I can tell, she’s been very very happy living alone, working from home and doing some amazing writing of her own. I turned 60.

Professionally, things have been a mixed bag. I did end up co-authoring a book with Nutmeg, which was a really rewarding experience for me. It led to a very cool book party, mention of the book in a couple of national magazines, and the chance to do a storytelling event with Nutmeg at a bar on the Lower East Side — and then, zip. The book was  a bust in terms of notice or sales, so I’m glad all that really mattered to me was the chance to work with Nutmeg. In the year-plus since the book came out I’ve written a couple of long magazine articles, one of which was killed for no apparent reason by an idiosyncratic editor (who’s since been fired), another of which was published and got its share of accolades, most of them on Twitter. And while I once said, only half-joking, that I’d know I was a professional success if I never had to write another article for a women’s magazine as long as I lived, something must have changed, because recently I’ve been accepting assignments from women’s magazines. At the moment, they’re the only outlets that have come calling.

So for now I reside in the Valley of the Stupid, where I can’t find a good story or book idea to save my life. It’s snowing today, and my drinks date for later this evening has already cancelled, so I’ll stay indoors to read and write and think. Among my tasks will be trying to find things to write about  on this blog — this anonymous, slightly quirky, virtually invisible blog. That  seems like one way to write myself out of this “what-do-I-do-now” quandary. We shall see.

fast-forward 25 years

A link to this 25-years-from-now video time capsule just landed in my inbox, and I went over to the “In 25 Years” web site and looked at some of the sample videos.  As I did so, I actually had a mental math shutdown. I was unable to subtract 1953 from 2035, which is when the time capsule will be opened, and just as unable to add 25 to 57.  Both of those numbers would tell me the age I will be 25 years from now. But I’ve managed to face the truth, the answer is 82, and I have to wonder not only what shape this poor sweet world will be in by then, but whether I’ll still be alive to see it.

The time capsule project was thought up by a bunch of young people: a young Californian named Pearl Wible and, from the looks of the web site, a couple of her young Californian friends.  The most ambitious part of their plan is that after they’ve “sealed off” the video time capsule (which will live somewhere in the internet cloud, as near as I can tell), they will try to gather together all the contributors they can find in 2035 for a huge middle-aged reunion.

I love how some of the people talking into their webcams say things like, “Hello future me.”  Such confidence.  Such sincerity. But there’s some black humor there, too, like the young guy who says, “If you’re seeing this now, it means I didn’t drink myself to death.”

If I made a video and were talking to my 82-year-old self, I would no doubt say something different than these 25-year-olds are saying as they talk to themselves at 50.  I’m not sure what it would be, though.  Would I tell my 82-year-old self that I should have realized that my 50s were my best years?  Would I tell her that I expect she’ll have found out that things kept getting better the older I got, as I watched daily tribulations fade away and leave me with concerns only about what really mattered?   Or would I be using the time-capsule video to talk not really to my future self at all — since there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll have died by then — but to my future middle-aged daughters, to tell them how central they were to my life?  Who knows.  Maybe I would just use it, once there’s nothing left to lose, to tell all the annoying people in my 2010 life to fuck off.

In a way, we all want to know how the story of our lives will turn out.  But in a bigger way, I think, we don’t.  I love the idea of the video time capsule, to be opened in 25 years, but it’s more than I can bear to try to picture my 82-year-old self clearly enough to have a conversation with her.


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