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.