Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Unfamiliar Fishes" by Sarah Vowell

You may have seen Sarah Vowell on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show."  She's a gamine with a pout who says incredibly funny things with a straight face.  I now know that she is also a splendid writer with the wit of an 18th c. rake.

"Unfamiliar Fishes" is her history of Hawaii from the mid-18th c. to the early 20th c.  If that sounds dry and pedantic, let me assure you it isn't.  Unfamiliar fishes is the term used to describe the white men--and women--who, in their wisdom, decided that Hawaiians needed a good dose of New England Puritanism along with a new alphabet and decent clothes.  The book is a cautionary tale (it turns out) about the consequences of importing an alien culture into a land where the native population is perfectly agreeable about the one they already have. 

Along with trousers for the men and dresses to the ankle for the women, a few dozen missionaries managed to introduce smallpox, measles, democracy, and Christianity to the Hawaiian people, each of which had what can only be called disastrous results.  The native population was diminished by two-thirds, traditional practices were discouraged if not forbidden, and the plentiful resources of the Pacific paradise were exploited for the benefit of the "haoles" (white men) who schemed, cajoled, rationalized, and finally forced themselves into the ascendancy.  The United States as good as plucked Hawaii out of the sea and put it in its own pocket.  Vowell's account of the step-by-step process that led ultimately to statehood for what had been a sovereign nation is cumulatively chilling, and it raises important questions about how the world should be divided up.

The Christian missionaries' view was that whoever developed land, whether in New England or in the Pacific, and imposed Christian values and practices had the right to a land its original owners didn't even realize could belong to them, private property being a European enlightenment notion that was totally unfamiliar.  It is poignant to see how welcoming the Hawaiians were to those early interlopers and how assiduously they tried to accommodate themselves to new ways of thinking.  Muddying the waters were the whalers who hit Hawaii's shores with all the appetites of sailors who had been long at sea.  When ship captains demanded native women to serve their crews as prostitutes, not even motivated missionaries could stop them.  Venereal disease was another "gift" from the white man.

Vowell never makes it explicit, but it would be a dim reader who did not compare the missionaries' zeal to Christianize heathens to contemporary America's passion to spread democracy.  Yes, the Hawaiians had their own wars before the white men came, but the dust had settled, and life was, if not bountiful, pleasant.  Unrestricted sex, even between siblings, eating poi, and surfboarding were all delightful things to do.  Being forced to go to school, where Hawaiian children were beaten and starved, must have  hurt like hell.

The descendants of those early missionary families are today's elite, and the number of pure Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians is pitifully small.  White plantation owners replaced taro with sugar, brought Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Philippino workers to till the fields and made sure to keep each group segregated so they couldn't organize.  Today every race in Hawaii is a minority, and of all the states it is undoubtedly the least racist.  We all know what Hawaii has become.  Is there any other state whose mere mention evokes such sensual pleasure?  Was this the inevitable outcome all along?

A question Vowell does not ask but that is intrinsically part of her book is, were the missionaries right?  Do the world's resources belong to the people who just happen to live on top of them, or do they belong to those would make the most use of them? 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Random Thoughts

This has been a surprising week.  When you have thought about something for a long time, wanted it for a long time, but convinced yourself it would never happen, then it does--well, then, that's a good week.  Last Saturday we lived in a beige/tan sort of house that disappeared into the woodwork, so to speak.  This Saturday we live in a bright yellow house with crisp white trim, soft brown shutters, and a blue door.  And I love it.

The thing about being without funds (sounds better than "poor") for  much of your adult life is that when the fog lifts, the sunshine is so much brighter than for those who have lived in the glare all their lives.  Or at least that's what I tell myself.  I do know that I am grateful for what I have today in a way I haven't been before.  So, here's to the universe, the wheel of fortune, the hand of fate, whatever.

That said, there are things that are driving me around the bend.  Wisconsin politics, the threat to teachers and education generally, the selling out of the universities, our ridiculous health care system, the stranglehold big business has on politicians, Indiana politics, the Tea Party, Fox News, Glenn Beck and his ilk, and those Wall Street bandits who beggared the nation and jeopardized the wellbeing of the entire world.  That's enough to start with.  Add the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you have enough to make me want to crawl in a hole.  The tragedies caused by earthquakes and tsunamis, disease and famine, and even global warming are in a way unavoidable.  Yes, we contribute to climate change and the suffering of distant peoples, but these are caused by our indifference.  The others in my list of aggravations are more directly the result of actions consciously undertaken by people who ought to know better.  That's what makes them so infuriating.  The whole Wall Street debacle, the housing boom and bust, and the plight of the uninsured have happened right under our noses, in plain sight.  And all were deliberately ignored.  Bernie Madoff went to jail, but what about the rest?  I don't foam at the mouth to see people punished and their families ruined, but some accountability would be nice.  I'd like to see the financiers who came up with all the fancy financial products that bankrupted Lehman Brothers et. al.  at least issue an apology and give back their obscene bonuses.  I'd like to see wealth taxed, as well as labor.  I'd like to see the well-off have a little more concern for those who are struggling and a bit less self-complacency. 

When I was a kid, I always assumed that if I were in trouble--say, if I were attacked or lying sick by the side of the road or starving--other people would come to my rescue.  I was naive.  Yes, there are saints who give themselves to others--Mother Theresa, Medicins sans Frontiers, Peace Corps volunteers--and I applaud them.  But most of us, me included I'm afraid, like to steer clear of real suffering. 

I think what we need to do is consider human nature and its failings.  Instead of shifting the blame around to this villain or that group, we should recognize that there is something wrong with all of us.  Christianity speaks to this in its doctrine of Original Sin.  Others religions have devised other explanations for man's depravity or disengagement.  Science seeks explanations in genes, chemical imbalances, or corrosive environments, but it seems to me that most people today are so caught up in the surface reasons for the world's ills that they ignore the real one: human nature itself.  We have met the enemy and it is us.  In days of old, religious leaders, poets, and philosophers held up a mirror to humanity and exposed our greed, our sloth, our selfishness, our cruelty.  Now it's always someone else's  fault.  No one is guilty; everyone is a victim and therefore innocent. 

I read somewhere that a girl in the 19th c. was likely to write in her diary that she hoped to be a kinder, better person; whereas, a girl in the late 20th c. was more likely to worry about the size of her bosom, the adequacy of her wardrobe, and her overall appearance.  One was concerned about character, the other about clothes.  I'm not saying that people in the 19th c. were better than people today, but does anyone doubt the superficiality of many contemporary obsessions? 

I wish I knew the answer to the question: Well, then, what should we do?  I do think that most people try to live decent lives, but does that include those who fret about the increasing Hispanic population or those who don't want their children to marry the wrong race or gender or those who think cheating in business is no big deal?  If most people are decent, then why are things so f---ed up?  Perhaps none of us is as decent as we would like to believe.  If we are guilty, then how should we live? 

When I was young, I believed that when I got older I would discover answers.  Now I am ripe in years, and there are only more questions.  I am beginning to believe that explaining life's imponderables is less important than learning to bear them with grace.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In Praise of Facebook

I belong to a generation for which Facebook is a novelty, and like the elders of times gone by many of my cohort dismiss Facebook for a whole host of reasons, much as grandparents at the turn of the century saw the automobile as a blight on the landscape, the telephone as an unnecessary intrusion into one's private life, the movies as a threat to literacy.  I hear complaints all the time that Facebook eliminates privacy, dehumanizes relationships, substitutes for "real" life, or focuses too much on the mundane tracking of one's friends' whereabouts.  There may be some truth in this, just as it is true that television can be a time waster, internet gambling can be a route to disaster, or an MP3 player can drown out the sounds and silences of nature.  So, yes, like everything, Facebook is not perfect.  However, I would like to offer a defense against the charge that Facebook is a poor substitute for face-to-face conversation, that Facebook friends are not "real" friends.

I am a student of the nineteenth century, in particular British literature.  The 19th c. saw a shift from life lived mostly in public to the elevation of the private home and its offer of escape from the hurly burly of the streets and factories.  Friendships were often passionate (in ways that can sound quite peculiar to modern ears), and letters were often the most common form of communication between friends, especially those who lived some distance away.  Many courtships were conducted primarily through letter-writing, like that of John Ruskin and Effie Gray.  These two splendid writers became friends through letters, John proposed in a letter, and they spent far more time apart than together during their rather long engagement.  Their letters contain intelligence (on both sides), wit, curiosity about the world and thought, and an exchange of ideas they found nowhere else.  It is probably not too much to say that Effie fell in love with John's prose style, just as John was attracted to Effie's hungry intellect and eagerness to read and discuss the books he recommended to her.  The rest of their story doesn't need retelling here, except that once they were married and living under the same roof the vividness of their letters quickly turned to the vinegar of mutual recrimination and disappointment.

I would venture to say that so long as their relationship was epistolary, it was successful.  It was the face-to-face, everyday physical reality of marriage that wrecked their happiness.  I think many Americans today can conceive of a very limited number of relational possibilities.  In some ways the young today have it better than my generation.  They find male-female friendship easier, and dating is no longer the fraught, constricted thing it was fifty years ago.  I find them to be more spontaneous, more openly affectionate, more tolerant than my friends in high school and college were.  I think it is a mistake to assume that Facebook communications are trivial.  Most of casual conversation is trivial, but both are a way of staying in touch, of reaffirming a connection, of belonging.

But there are other ways Facebook nurtures connectivity.  Now it's possible to find friends with similar interests, whether they live next door or a continent away.  It's possible to reconnect with friends who would otherwise be lost.  It's possible to have an epistolary relationship without the responsibilities and demands of people we see all the time.  I suggest that Facebook and blogs, perhaps even texting (which I know nothing about) allow people to think differently and write more fluently.  They place a new kind of emphasis on the written word that makes language itself more accessible and democratic.  We have seen how Facebook and Twitter have influenced politics in the Middle East and raised the consciousness of oppressed peoples.  Just as we thank God for a cell phone when our car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, we should also appreciate the unique opportunities Facebook provides.  In her great novel "Middlemarch" George Eliot uses the metaphor of a web to explain human interdependence.  Touch the web at any of its points, and the whole thing vibrates.  Facebook is our web; it transcends space and contracts time.  The revolution in Egypt could not have happened had it depended on the mail or even the telephone.  Friends who were lost can be found.  Thoughts that might evaporate can be shared.  Facebook allows us to share a brave new world, and we are the better for it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand's account of the great miler Louis Zamperini, his experiences in WW II, and his life after being brutalized in a Japanese POW camp makes powerful reading.  Hillenbrand's research is prodigious, filled with specific dates, statistics, and arcane information.  That alone makes the book worth adding to one's book shelf.  But it is her writing style that brings the irascible Louie to life and takes us with him into hell on earth. 

This book has helped me understand my parents, and their generation who fought the war, better.  I now have a much greater sense of what it must have been like to live through Pearl Harbor and the battles of the Pacific.  My father was a Lt. Commander in the Navy during the war years.  His job was training soldiers on ways to survive if their ship sank or their plane was downed.  He never saw combat, but he knew what America was up against and what it cost each and every individual who lived through those frightening years.  What amazes me is how little my parents talked about those years in anything but the blandest terms.  I knew my dad was posted in Florida in the winter, Newport, R.I., in the summer.  Not a bad gig, I always thought.  They talked about the hurricane that called all officers back to base, leaving my mother alone with her small son.  I heard about my brother's allergies and his first-grade teacher.  I remember one story about close friends of my parents who eloped.  My parents stood up with them and planned a celebration after the ceremony: a box of chocolates they would share.  When they weren't looking, my brother ate them all.  Those were the difficulties I heard about.  There was so much more they didn't say, and I never fully grasped what exactly happened and how terribly so many men--and women too--suffered. 

Louie's story would be fascinating even without his war experiences.  He ran in the 1936 Olympics and shook Hitler's hand.  He had an oversize personality that drew people to him, even as he committed outrageous acts.  By the age of 14 he had his town of Torrence, Calif., terrorized by his shenanigans.  No one could control him, not even his beloved mother, no one but his older brother Pete, who used his own pristine reputation to haul Louis out of trouble on many more than one occasion.  Pete would later train soldiers in survival tactics like my dad did.  He spent the war in an agony of worry about his brother, who disappeared at sea and was presumed dead by the Army Air Force.  His mother knew, she just somehow knew, that Louis was alive, and she bought him presents every Christmas, which she kept until he at last returned home and could open them.  For the duration of his absence she suffered from a dreadful, debilitating rash on her hands.  As soon as she learned that he was, as she had long believed, alive, the rash immediately cleared.

The heart and soul of the book is in the account of Louie's years spent in Japanese prison camps, and he was sent to the worst of the worst.  Reading about what he endured--the beatings, the starvation, the humiliation, the despair, the unending physical and mental pain--is not easy, but for me it was necessary.  I have been so lucky, so sheltered, so safe that it takes a great leap of the imagination to even begin to absorb what happened to Louis and thousands of other men in similar circumstances.  But our good fortune does not exempt us from an obligation to try to comprehend suffering.  Bearing witness is important; it's the very least we can do.

There are two dominant personalities in "Unbroken."  One is Louie's, of course; the other is his chief tormenter, a man who would become notorious all over Japan for his cruelty, who escaped capture after the war, disappeared for a time, then re-emerged in Japanese society where he became a successful businessman, living to a ripe old age.  Nicknamed by his prisoners "the Bird", this man was not only capable of the most heinous violence, he positively relished it.  Beating and humiliating other men gave him erotic pleasure.  His unpredictability made him even more dangerous.  He loathed Louie and sought him out for the harshest treatment.  Here is a study in mental pathology that forced me to question human nature itself.  How can an apparently normal man be so transformed as to become a monster?  And how can that man return to normal life, start a family, achieve success, and never admit or accept his guilt for his sub-human behavior?

As for Louie, who endured things that killed many of his comrades, how did he fare after being reduced to a crushed, broken-spirited man?  PTSD was not recognized in the '40s and '50s as it is today.  Veterans got little in the way of psychiatric help, but the POWs from Japan suffered the most.  After the war most were never able to resume normal lives.  Suicide took many, Alcoholism many more.  Flashbacks, hallucinations, and all-consuming rage ruined lives and families.  Louis suffered from all these and for a long time, even after marrying the love of his life, it seemed he would never escape his tormenter, "the Bird."

I am not a religious person, and I honestly never warmed to Billy Graham, but it was he who brought Louie back.  Louie wasn't a religious man either; he dismissed religion out of hand, and when his wife got caught up in one of Graham's revivals and begged Louie to go with her, he flat out refused.  She wore him down, however, and one night, as he was rushing toward the door of the tent in a fury, Graham told him to stop.  Graham said, You can't leave now.  You can leave during my sermon but not when people are being saved.  Louie did stop.  And something inside him broke.  The rage was gone; he was at peace for the first time in years.  He became a Christian, poured out all his whiskey, reconnected with his wife, and went on to found a camp for wayward boys that saved kids from a road to nowhere.  He died in his 90s a happy, still athletic, lovable man.

I have thought about these 180-degree conversions a lot, having seen others go through the process of literally becoming a different person.  It seems to take extremes--going as far as possible in one direction before it becomes possible to reverse course.  Quite often it is religion that effects the transition, but I personally don't believe religion itself is responsible.  There must be something in human beings that when stretched far enough snaps, something deep in the mind where most of us never have to go.  Louis experienced this turn-around.  The question remains whether the Bird did or not.  It would seem not.  The amazing thing to me is not only that Louie could heal and forgive, but that the Bird, who had behaved so wantonly, so cruelly, could endure the rest of his life.  Parents who murder their children, former Nazis who terrorized and killed Jews, terrorists who blow up innocent women and children--how on earth do they live?  A great silence swallows the evil.  The sufferer can't bear to speak of his pain; the killer can't bear to speak of his guilt.  Laura Hillenbrand, with the help of Louie Zamperini and many, many others who aided her in writing this book, has opened up this silence and touched this reader's heart.  I think I understand now why my parents didn't drink.  My dad once told me he'd seen a lot of drinking in the Navy and it turned him off alcohol completely.  I thought he was being a prude.  Of course soldiers drank; it was their only escape.  Like religion, alcohol abuse is a means of coping. 

I'm not like Louie.  As I read this book, I became more and more angry.  I was thrilled to see the Bird's photograph displayed and gratified to have his behavior documented.  I could not and will not ever forgive him for what he did.  I can see that revenge upon such a man would indeed be sweet.  Maybe I haven't learned enough from "Unbroken."  I guess I need to think about it a bit more.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Having My Say

I am so appalled by the attacks on teachers, teachers' unions, the right for public employees to collectively bargain, to say nothing of the assault on the Health Care Reform Bill, that I am left nearly speechless.  If not for Jon Stewart, I would be in a bad way.  What's important, though, is that our country is in a bad way, and every time I sense some improvement it only gets worse.

The Blogosphere is an important social force these days, and I encourage everyone who has a blog, is on Facebook, or has an email contact list to proclaim loudly and clearly that Americans are fed up with the Right's efforts to subvert our values of liberty, justice, equality, and social responsibility. 

Issue by issue:

Gun Control: some liberals may prefer a society without private gun ownership, but they are not, as a block, calling for nationwide disarmament.  I don't like guns, but I grudgingly accept that Americans who are not criminal or insane should be free to own them.  I would like a sensible system of gun registration and better oversight of the gun industry.  No one needs an automatic weapon whose only purpose is to kill or maim human beings.  No one has a right to stockpile a cache of weapons that poses a threat to unwitting neighbors.  The Right acts as if there were a plot to make all guns illegal.  There isn't.  The real conspiracy is the gun lobby's own propaganda machine.  As with most things, follow the money.

Gay Marriage: Freedom means, in part, not denying other people the chance to live as they wish and do as they want so long as it doesn't hurt you.  Simply by itself, being gay does not hurt anyone.  Denying gay couples the same rights, including marriage and its benefits, does hurt those who are being denied.  Homosexuality does not threaten marriage, and no religious group has the right to dictate how those outside its own community should live.  Racial equality before the law has not brought America to its knees, quite the opposite.  Sexual equality can only strengthen our nation, our families, and our own self-respect.  Live and let live--not a bad thing to remember.

Access to Health Care: government has an obligation to provide citizens with the necessities they cannot (or should not) provide for themselves, ie. police and fire protection, safe roads and bridges, effective drugs, uncontaminated food, education for all, and affordable health care.  Our system of health care delivery has been neither affordable nor accessible to every citizen.  We may have the best health care system in the world, for those who can pay, but it is a failure if people are shut out of it--for any reason.  I had a "phone call" yesterday from Mike Huckabee urging me to help repeal "Obamacare."  Why would any rational person want to do that, unless she were invested in the insurance industry or were in the pocket of "big pharma?"  Does anyone really want to drop their 24 yr.  old, unemployed son or daughter from their health care plan?  Does anyone really want to deny coverage to children simply because they are sick?  Does anyone want insurance companies to be able to drop a customer when that customer comes down with cancer or chronic mental illness?  I'm sick of hearing "we can't afford it" or "eliminate the budget deficit first."  Let's start with what we NEED.  Then let's find ways to pay for it.  That brings me to my next issue:

Increased Taxes:  We are grossly undertaxed as a nation, but more significantly the richest (let's be generous) 5% are making more money than ever and paying less in taxes than they did under Reagan.  Income redistribution is anathema to many Americans, but we're not talking about income equality, which would be impractical and counter-productive.  And we're not talking about removing the incentive of healthy competition.  A stable, fair society benefits everyone, even the rich.  One thing I have always admired about America is that our neighborhoods (for the most part) are wide open.  In many parts of the world the norm is for everyone with anything, from the lower-middle class on up, to live behind gates and walls.  Living in a compound is tantamount to living in a medieval fortress, with the hungry on the outside and the threatened elite on the inside.  No threat, no walls.  A picket fence is not a wall.  A fair society doesn't need them.

Collective Bargaining: Americans have short memories.  Very short.  Other cultures hold on to their past, sometimes to the point of desperation and madness.  Re-fighting the battles of the ninth century or the fourteenth is to cripple oneself in the present.  After a suitable interval, it is time to readjust one's outlook.  Our world has prospered because America, Japan, and Germany were able to lay enmity aside and get on with business.  This happened remarkably fast.  A short memory served in that instance, but our historical memory shouldn't be so truncated as to blot out events that still have an impact on us today.  The nineteen century provides plenty of examples of worker exploitation.  A factory worker in England in 1840 was no better than a slave.  Today, where workers are at the mercy of their employers (think Mexico or indeed any third-world country), people, including children, suffer.  The reason America has had a vibrant middle class is due in large measure to the rise of labor unions and collective bargaining that dispersed power.  I wonder how many revolutions might have been prevented if labor unions had been a force to contend with.  The attacks on teachers and public employee unions is an attack on the very thing that gave us a standard of living that has been the envy of the world.  More and more we are becoming a nation of the elite few and the struggling many.  If this continues, we will continue our decline.  We no longer own the ball, and when we go home to our gated communities and cadillac health insurance plans, the game won't stop.  We lived a Marie-Antoinette life for far too long.  She lost her head; we lost our economy, our security, our world reputation.  Now we must move beyond an "I've got mine; you get yours" mentality or our losses are only just beginning.  You heard it here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCan

"Let the Great World Spin" won the National Book Award in 2009. 

It is written by an Irishman about New York City.  It deals with prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, mothers of dead Viet Nam soldiers, Jewish lawyers, Park Avenue matrons, a pair of Irish brothers--and Phillipe Petit (I think that's the right spelling), who walked across a cable strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center before they were opened.  This stunt caused a sensation when it actually happened, and it links the various stories of the fictional characters in the book.  Mostly, this is a novel about the city itself.  I wish I could say I liked it, but New York comes off as hellish, and all the characters are frustrating.  And that is all I have to say.

Being a Woman of a Certain Age

This morning on the Today show ( I catch bits and pieces of it from time to time) Meredith Viera interviewed an "aging" 40-yr. old, Sarah Brokaw, about her new book on growing older.  Ms. Brokaw is 40, and I gather she's a therapist of some sort (didn't catch the whole interview), whose advice to women is to listen to their own voice, to see aging as an opportunity rather than as a disaster, to go forth with confidence and purpose.  Well.  I guess that's good advice, but I wonder.  Ms. Brokaw herself is beautiful, physically fit, financially secure, self-accepting (why wouldn't she be?), and she has great hair.  Is this someone who can lead the way for the pudgy, under-achieving, frazzled woman who is trying to cope the best she can?  Can thinking positively really solve our problems?  Yes and no.

The interview got me thinking about how I feel about growing older.  I wouldn't presume to speak for all women, or for anyone but myself, but I would like to share my perspective on the "age thing" and perhaps offer some comfort to those who might be worried about it.

I love being 65.  I am happier than I have ever been, and I believe that is due in part--in large part--to being the age I am.  If 35-yr.-olds look back at the teen years with horror and no desire to repeat them, then as a 65-yr.-old,  I look back at 35 and say, I'm glad I don't have to do that over.  Don't get me wrong.  When I was 35, I enjoyed most, if not all, of my life: grad school, three kids, no money, no secure future or any idea what the future might be.  I loved my work and my family, but I was still too green, too raw, too unfinished to be able to feel in control of anything.  The word I would use to describe my life from 20 to 40 is "intense."  I craved intensity and was embarrassed by my desire for it at the same time.  In college I had a reputation for being "artsy" and "intense," and I didn't believe those were compliments.  At 20 I was afraid my life would never be very interesting--to me or to anyone else--by 55 I felt I had enough material for a very long novel and didn't feel I had missed a thing.  Those years were difficult in many ways, and I struggled mightily to keep moving forward.  I look back now and ask myself how I did it.

What I now believe is that you get through intense times by simply living through them.  You don't fix them, pretend they aren't there, stop trying, or give in to despair though you may feel like it sometimes.
As Dilsey says in "The Sound and the Fury", you "endure."  In my book that counts as success.  The wonderful thing that I have discovered (and I attribute much of this to simple good luck) is that merely by growing older you are less and less plagued by the bogeymen that have haunted you--and I believe everyone has them.  They're what you worry about.  Am I good-looking enough?  Am I smart enough?  Have I done enough with my life?  Am I making a fool of myself?  Everyone has a different, unique list.  If you notice, the word "I" appears in every question.  Somewhere around age 60, I found that the answer to the first three questions at least is "no."  But you know what?  I no longer care, not as I once did.  After years of working, worrying, fretting, and fearing failure, I find the relief of not much caring a positive pleasure.

Beautiful women must fear losing their looks.  I'd hate to be Elizabeth Taylor and watch myself fall apart.  Ordinary women have an advantage; they have less to lose.  Take the British actress Juliet Stevenson for example.  Ms. Stevenson is a pleasant-looking woman, yet I don't think anyone would call her beautiful.  But she is interesting.  If she keeps clean and does something decent with her hair, she will always be interesting.  As I age, my cohort is aging too.  Interesting old men, if they have any sense, want interesting women, not just beautiful ones.  Friendship is easier.  Young men don't even think of you as a possibility, so you can be friends with them.  That is delightful.  Old men are as tired as you are, and friendship has the advantage over the sexual rat race.  That is comforting.  Intimacy is an investment that has matured and solidified (again, with luck).  Your life experience is money in the bank, and now you are free to spend it.

I was an academic, luckily at the tail end of what I consider a golden age in higher education.  I made it through on my teaching, without publishing the requisite book(s) required by the current system, before assessment became a pseudo-science rather than a matter of intelligent judgment.  I was free to love my subject, literature, and to put my energies into my students.  I look at those coming up behind me, the ones in their late-twenties and thirties, who are scrambling to squeeze through the door of academia before it slams in their face.  I see the anxiety when that book doesn't get published in time or the grant doesn't come through.  I see young faculty too overwhelmed by career demands to do more than the minimum with students.  Those young teachers who should be a model of what lies just ahead in life for their students, who remember most vividly what it is like to be an undergraduate or a harried graduate student, who have the energy to take on the world but have to spend it hunched over a computer, those are the ones I pity.  I wish the system were more humanistic, more liberal, less bureaucratic and commercialized, but it has always been true that the middle years of adulthood are the most difficult.  Maybe that is the way it should be.  One thing is sure: the relief of no longer having to fight to stay afloat is a positive pleasure. 

I am 65, not 85.  I will think differently in ten or twenty years than I do now.  I am interested to see how my perspective will change, and I hope I will find good things to replace the things I enjoy today.  When I was 35, I couldn't imagine anything that could take the place of raising young children.  I positively feared their growing up and away.  Then I found graduate school, and a new world opened up.  I wondered what would replace grad. school in terms of intellectual intensity, and eventually I found my feet teaching Honors students.  I wondered what would replace teaching, and I found that caring for grandchildren takes everything that came before and lets me relive it, albeit in a different (easier) way.  My experience as a mother, my years of learning, my marriages and my divorces all gave me, I hope, something I could pass on to the young.  I feel I have turned inside out and am now looking toward the world.  I am no longer paralyzed with insecurity, no longer on tenterhooks about how others see me, no longer trying on various personae in hopes of finding one that fits.  Now I find I can feel, really feel, for the young.  I don't have to compete with them, out-perform them, or be jealous of their success.  My greatest pleasure is in helping them insofar as I can.  I can listen.  I can care.  I can offer encouragement, which is what the young most need.  I can tell them that life does get easier, and that growing old is indeed a positive pleasure.  (Wish luck.)  I mistyped that; it should be With luck.  But Wish works too.