I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50, page 1
ALSO BY ANNABELLE GURWITCH
You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up
with Jeff Kahn
Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled,
Downsized, & Dismissed
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China
A Penguin Random House Company
Copyright © 2014 by Annabelle Gurwitch
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
I see you made an effort : compliments, indignities, and survival stories from the edge of fifty / Annabelle Gurwitch.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Aging—Humor. 2. Middle-aged women—Humor. I. Title.
PN6231.A43G87 2014 2013037792
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.
For my big sister, Lisa,
thanks for saving me a seat at the table
Also by Annabelle Gurwitch
When Brown Was Going to Be the New Black
“Ka-Ching” or “Cha-Ching”?
The Scent of Petty Theft
Marauding Through the Middle Ages
At Least I Made an Effort
This Is Fifty
I’m Meditating as Fast as I Can
The Four A.M. Club
About the Author
On the day I turned forty-nine the first solicitation from AARP appeared in my email in-box. At a glance, I thought it might be an ad for white-collar prison uniforms. A couple is pictured dressed in matching cotton pastel sweaters and pleated Dockers. The entire outfit screams, Here, take my libido and hold it for the rest of my life, which won’t last much longer anyway. The man has his arms encircling the woman’s waist. Is he propping her up because she’s suffering from osteoporosis, or helpfully disguising her muffin top? The expressions on their faces can only be described as resigned.
The AARP offers you a refrigerated travel bag when you join. What’s the refrigerated part for? Medications, no doubt. Medications that require refrigeration? They’re not fooling around. Perhaps I’ll consider joining when they feature couples in matching Jil Sander elegance and offer a gym bag or a Shiraz of the Month club membership. Just something that doesn’t advertise Your health is your top concern while traveling. For the record, it is. I was just diagnosed as prediabetic but I don’t need my luggage to remind me.
Something had to give.
Things that had seemed solid were falling away. My attitude, my family, my future and my face, everything had lost its shape.
The mothers I had grown up with were disappearing before my eyes. My own mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and with Bonnie Franklin and Jean Stapleton gone, I started checking up on Florence Henderson’s health. All of the Ramones had left the building except for the ones you never cared about to begin with.
My son wasn’t speaking to me. I was unemployed and my parents urgently needed to sell my childhood home. Should I go back to college, adopt another kid, get divorced, raise llamas? I couldn’t afford a vacation so I was taking a lot of naps.
I tried keeping gratitude lists, stronger vibrators, cheap massages and better moisturizers. I tried praying to a God I didn’t even believe in.
When I began contemplating having Under New Management inked just below my C-section scar, I made an appointment with my gynecologist.
As I left his office with my stack of prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy gels, patches and pills, he held his hand up to wave good-bye. “Stay . . .” Pause. It was a big pause, though there are definitely no pregnant pauses in my life anymore. Stay what? What would he say? Would it be that adage girls signed yearbooks with at my junior high school, “Stay the same, never change”? Stay healthy? Stay happy? Stay hydrated? Would he go all Bob Dylan on me, “Stay forever young”? Nope.
“Stay . . . funny,” he said.
Forty is the new thirty? I’ve heard that many times and I’ve said it just as often. Interestingly, the saying “Fifty is the new forty” has never really caught on because it’s not. Fifty is still fifty.
Please let me still be fuckable at fifty.
My computer was moving sluggishly. A year ago, upon pressing the start button, my machine swiftly jumped to attention. Now the familiar sight of documents dotting the photograph of my thirteen-year-old son was replaced by a black bar inching across a dull gray expanse, like an octogenarian with a walker creeping through an intersection. Then the software failed to load altogether. It was going to take a stroke of genius to get it working again.
The Glendale Galleria Apple Store is staffed by a crew whose average age could be summed up as: if you have to ask, you’re too old to want to hear the answer. After checking in, I am told my personal genius will meet me at the Bar.* Homo genius are outfitted uniformly in T-shirts announcing their membership in an elite tech-savvy species. Mine sports a headband, which artfully musses his hair. He is wearing a name tag that reads “AuDum.” I ask him how he pronounces it.
“Is it a creative spelling of the first man, Adam? Is it a Sanskrit chant—Auuuduuuum? A percussive sound?”
“No,” he replies. “It’s pronounced autumn, like the season.”
“Are you in a band?”
“No, my mother gave me that name.”
“You belong to a generation of great names,” I tell him. I am thinking of the kids whose instruments I check out every Friday afternoon in the music department at my son’s school. Each student’s name is more interesting than the next: Lilit, Anush, Reason, Butterfly, Summer and Summer Butterfly, which seems like both a name and a to
AuDum begins talking about his mother and I hold my breath, wondering if he will say that she is my age. Thankfully, he says she’s a bit older, sixty-two. She’s a speech pathologist who lives in Albuquerque and he admires her work. I am charmed by his obvious affection for his mother. He has been well cared for, I think, as I notice that he has good teeth. Braces? Maybe not, but definitely regular dental care. As he examines my computer, he tells me my hard drive is dying.
“But it’s so young—it’s only a few years old.”
He explains that computer years are like dog years times three, making my computer only slightly younger than I am.
“But there were no outward signs. It was doing just fine until recently.”
“Nobody knows exactly why computers fail,” he tells me. “It’s not like people, who have a steady decline—the end can come without warning. You’re catching it just in time,” he says, adding, “do you have an external hard drive?” I tell him I do, thinking that if my Apple Time Machine* weren’t the size of a wallet I would jump inside it and go back in time so I could be his age. While I was there, I would also correct a few of the numerous errors in judgment I’ve made in my almost fifty years on the planet.
To start with, I would change all my PIN numbers, secret passwords, and security codes to the exact same thing.* I also went door-to-door to register voters for John Kerry in 2004, made phone calls for John Edwards in 2000, and took pottery classes after the maudlin melodrama Ghost, with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, came out in 1990. I’m not sure which was the biggest misstep, but a trip back in time could, at the very least, keep half a dozen ill-formed ashtrays out of California landfills.
Judging from his appearance, it seems a distinct and sobering possibility that AuDum Genius might have been born the same year I was throwing clay.
“So, how old are you?”
He is closer in age to my son than me by a decade. As he checks out my computer, I pepper him with questions. “What qualifies one to be a Genius? Is there much training? An IQ test?”
Just as he’s about to answer, another of his tribe, Sean Genius, comes over and deferentially asks what even I know to be a simple question. “What do you do if someone forgets her iTunes password?” AuDum helps him out and I compliment him by noting that some Geniuses seem more gifted than others. He tells me that he was certified at the thirty-two-acre Apple campus, located at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California. The hotels are owned by Apple, the blankets have an Apple stamp, and would-be Geniuses eat on plates stamped with the Apple logo in Apple-owned cafés and are regularly whisked past restricted areas where classified research takes place. In fact, he will return for further training soon.
“Ooh,” I tease him excitedly. “You could be a spy, pretending you’re there to train, but you’re really sneaking in to collect intel for Intel. The James Bond of computer tech.”
He looks at me blankly. Clearly the reference to Bond doesn’t hold the kind of cachet it did for generations of men before him. Should have said Jason Bourne. That’s when he suggests a radical move.
“Are you up for it?”
He wants to strip my computer down completely and then carefully, slowly and deliberately, he will reload my hard drive. In order to make this work, I will have to agree to do everything he says, even if it sounds a bit unusual.
“In order to give something, we have to take something away,” he tells me. Is he quoting the Bible or a sacred Steve Jobsian aphorism? I have no idea, but he had me at “reload.”
We will need to download any applications I use and the process may take all night. During that time, I shouldn’t do anything to harm or disturb the computer, he warns, or we’ll have to start all over again and can I manage that kind of painstaking process? I’m forty-nine years old, I have all of my own teeth, most of my wedding china is still intact, and the baby who was cut out of my abdomen while I was awake has made it to puberty under my watch, so yes, I think I can do that. I nod my assent, swallowing hard. He tells me to take everything off.
I remove my data silently and swiftly. He begins his maneuvers, and I want to hear more about his mother.
“Were you always close, or did you find your way back to her as an adult?”
“Oh, we were on the same team until maybe thirteen or fourteen and then it got tough. She was having a hard time, too. She got divorced, changed careers, we moved around, but then things turned around after I went to college. Now we’re close.”
I take out a pen and paper to write his words down—like I’m an anthropologist taking field notes on the maturation process of young men. His grandmother died last month and his mother is “freaked” about being the oldest person left in her family. He’s been calling a lot to help her make peace with that.
His hands are nice, I notice, nails filed, but a quick glance down the counter shows me that all Geniuses have clean hands and filed nails. Maybe it’s code, like the way Disney once required employees at the park to be clean-shaven.* I may be looking at the last of the Apple manicures, but I hope not. It’s nice to see good grooming on twenty-somethings. It’s kind of old-school, or rather, my school.
His hands glide confidently over my keyboard, but my laptop keeps stalling so I have to keep reentering my password. I try to punch in the digits breezily, but he’s standing so close, right next to my crooked pinky, the one with osteoarthritis. The process is laborious as I attempt to type with my pinky tucked under my palm, hoping he doesn’t notice the swollen middle joint. It’s possible, even probable, for someone so young to assume it’s broken or disfigured from a sports injury—at least I hope so. My Genius sets the download in motion, hands me my computer, and with a brief good-bye, he promises that we’ll finish what we started in the morning. I exit, cradling my computer through the mall, into my car, and back home.
I am an impatient person. I’ve never managed to carry out complicated recipes or blow-dry my hair all the way to the back of my head, but I am on a mission, and when I arrive home I leave the computer to complete the process. I instruct both my husband and son not to disturb it under any circumstances.
That night, everything I do seems supercharged with new purpose.
The next morning, after driving my son to school, I shower and stand in my closet, wondering what to wear. I have no idea. I haven’t known what to put on for the last few years. I’m aging out of my wardrobe.
Skirts are too short. The legs are still good, but the folds of skin at the knee should not be seen, unless in colored tights, but even then, colored tights just don’t seem age-appropriate. Many of my dresses are just too flouncy, ruffles circling the face are too Humpty Dumpty, flared skirts too flirty, tight clothing looks lumpy and anything blousy seems to emphasize my lack of a waist. Is this the moment I head into the Eileen Fisher years?
In my thirties, I glanced at Fisher’s ads with fleeting interest, but as I edged into my forties, I began to linger on the images. Even with a cursory look, Eileen Fisher’s clothes look like a cross between a hospital gown and a toga. What is the message? We need soft fabrics next to our dried-out skin—anything with more texture might chafe? We must disguise our bodies in flowing robes lest we appear overtly sexual—or worse, turn others off? Eileen shows only solid colors, no patterns at all, ever, as if to suggest that patterns might clash with the lines and angles on our faces. I do seem to look better in solid color
I try on a pair of new jeans that I was steered to purchase by a mother of four who’s in her fifties. My friend likes them because they have a high waist without being mom-jeans boxy. I pair them with a dark blue button-down shirt and a black sweater. I look like a plainclothes detective. It’s the best I can do. I put on a minimal amount of makeup. Have to keep it light; at forty-nine, any excess looks like Sylvia Miles’s aging hooker character from Midnight Cowboy. (It’s worth noting that Ms. Miles was actually thirty-seven when she shot that film.)
Then, I carefully twist a length of bright yellow silk into “The Pretzel.” Yes, I did watch the six-and-a-half-minute scarf-tying video on the Fisher site. A middle-aged woman dressed in a simple black outfit, no jewelry, with a close-cropped hairstyle I call the “man-do” (a look favored by Judi Dench, elderly nuns, and white-pride militias), solemnly wraps herself in colored scarves, smiling wanly each time she completes a knot. Over and over and over again. Some techniques are genuinely intriguing, but I was also tempted to lob the “Loop and Drape” over a ceiling lamp before roping it around my neck and stepping off a chair. The scarf’s official purpose, like that of its older cousin, the turtleneck, is to cover the gobbler, but standing in my closet, I realize that the scarf also adds color and some je ne sais quoi. I know what the “quoi” is now—it’s the last vestige of feminine flair of the pared-down wardrobe of the middle-aged woman. I cast it aside and leave the house looking like a cop.