Posts Tagged ‘aging’


August 12, 2013

We have Netflix and cable and pay-per-view and more remotes than I know what to do with, but for me, inside, there will always be three TV channels.

CBS, NBC and ABC. Since I grew up in New York City, that translates to channels 2, 4 and 7, which had all the good programs. Then there were 5 and 9, which showed black-and-white reruns, 11 which showed Yankee games, and 13, the educational station, which we never watched. (I was born just a couple of years too early for Sesame Street, and my parents were not Masterpiece Theatre types.)

No matter how many remotes we have, I will go to my grave feeling that “normal” is three TV stations. I suspect many other boomers feel the same way.

Which brings me to the topic of change.

We live at a time when change is, quite possibly, happening faster and more unrelentingly than ever before in human history. Big changes like industries evaporating and little changes like moving from the iPod 4 to the iPod 5.  I thought of this again yesterday when, reading the Sunday paper, I came across a photo of Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen was one of the inventors of Netscape. When I was covering tech in the 1990s, he was the just-minted wunderkind, the graduate student with a mess of floppy hair who represented everything new and cutting-edge.

And now he looks like this:


Middle aged! (Like the rest of us.)

I have a hard time with change. I live near the geographic epicenter of technological change, and I try not to be a dinosaur, but I have a hard time with it. We are an innovative, tool-making, world-changing species but  there is also a big part of us that is designed not to expect change.

Think about how we learn to understand the world as babies – a stable, unchanging world. Would it be possible to learn about it any other way?

Parent: Ball. Say, ‘ball.’ Here. (Rolls ball to baby.) 

Baby: Baa. (Holds ball. Pushes ball back.) 

Parent: Yes, it’s a ball! Here’s the ball. (Rolls ball back to baby.)

What would happen if every time that ball came to baby, it had a different name? “No, not ball, gorphin! No, not gorphin, schminger!” What if every time baby pushed the ball, it did something else? First it rolled, but then it floated, and then it exploded? How would we learn to function in the world? How would our primitive ancestors have survived if everytime they plucked the same purple berry it was different – one time tasty, one time sour, one time poisonous?

Some of us – if we are lucky – have stable childhoods. That was my case. No divorces, war zones, plagues, bankruptcies, deaths. My family lived in the same apartment from the time I was two until I was grown; I went to just two schools; we celebrated holidays the same way each year. Even climbing the ladder of school, the continuities outweighed the changes – different teachers and subjects every September, but the same structure to the day, many of the same classmates, the same rules for what was prized or punished.

A lot of human history was pretty unchanging too. Millennia of nomadic societies. The middle ages. If you lived in medieval Europe, you probably spent your life entirely in one village. Your parents were shepherds, so you were a shepherd.  “Change” amounted to the rare arrival of a stranger in town; a new overlord demanding more tithes; a good harvest season or a bad harvest season.

In my life these days, the most unchanging thing may be my cat.  He changed a lot in the first six months of kittenhood, but now our life with him is completely unchanging. We feed and cuddle him; he finds funny places and positions to sleep; sometimes he brings us dead mice. That’s it. And that will be it, more or less, for the rest of his life. Technology is constantly changing, consumer products are changing, industries are dying and empires are dissolving, but the cat remains the same.

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

The requisite cat photo / By Ilana DeBare

Parenthood is not like pet ownership.

Many of us go into parenthood thinking it will be stable. We think,  “Okay, my wild youth is over, now I’m settling down and having kids.” And sometimes — especially in those first few months with an infant, or during the 11th inning of a Little League game — it does seem as timeless and tedious as the Middle Ages.

But kids grow. As soon as you’ve reached equilibrium with one stage – “okay, I know how to handle a toddler” – they have moved on to an entirely different stage. You find yourself trying to take a ten-year-old to the zoo. Just six months ago they loved going to the zoo with you! And now they would rather be buried up to their necks in a hole with molasses and red army ants than look at elephants, or for that matter look at anything, with you.

This summer we’ve had Daughter home with us for three months after her freshman year of college. It’s been delightful. She is happy to be home, happy with her adult life, happy to be with us. She volunteered to cook dinner once a week. She even asks to play games with us in the evening!

And this won’t last. In two weeks, she goes back to school. We’ll have her home for winter break, but after that… summer study abroad. Internships and jobs in New York. It’s unclear when she will be at home for such an extended period again.

Those changes — kids growing up, adults growing old — aren’t unique to our era. But all the other modern changes added on top make things feel overwhelming sometimes.

How much of my desire for stability – my refusal, deep inside, to accept that there are more than three TV stations – is a quirk of my own upbringing? How much is hard-wired into us all as human beings?

And how much might be generational? Will generations like my daughter’s — raised with technology turning itself inside-out every year or two — have any less of a gut yearning for constancy?

Picture yourself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies –

Oops, not that kind of boat. Picture yourself on a boat, yes, but more like punting on the Cam, just floating lazily down a quiet summer river. You’ve got an old-fashioned Polaroid camera. You’re taking photos of the shoreline, trying to preserve the views you love the most.

But it takes time for you to click, and for the camera to whirr and process and slowly spit out an image.

By then you’re long past the scene in the photo.

It’s gone.


Eighteen, chai, life

December 13, 2011

My daughter turned 18 this past weekend. Eighteen!

I remember so clearly being home with a new baby, sleepless and overwhelmed and terrified of losing my independent adult life. Every half-hour seemed to drag on for a year. (Especially at 3:30 a.m.) The nurse/diaper/cry/nurse routine felt like it would go on forever. I couldn’t imagine her sleeping through the night, let alone going to school.

The juncture she has reached now — turning 18, a legal adult, applying to colleges — would have seemed as impossibly distant as Star Trek’s 23rd century. But of course here it is, and like going through a Trekkie wormhole, it feels as if practically no time has passed.

Ice cream cake with Rollos and Kit Kits, by my sister-in-law Esther / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I could write about how proud Sam and I are of the person that B. has become. But I won’t.

Instead I want to play with numbers, which is a polite way of saying I want to write about me.

She is 18. I am about to turn 54.

Eighteen is one-third of 54. I look at her and see my life divided into neat thirds: From birth to 18, I was growing up. From 18 to 36, I was an independent adult. From 36 to 54, I was a parent. Yes, I continued to work as a journalist, but my main creative energy went into being a parent and into projects that spun off from parenting (helping start the Julia Morgan School for Girls, writing a book about girls’ schools, etc.).

Now my next 18 years will take me from 54 to 72. What will that entail? A return to being the independent adult, a chance to invent a new career, more time for fiction writing?

Eighteen also connects to the word “chai” in Jewish tradition. The Kabbalist mystics assigned numerical values to each Hebrew letter, and the chet-yud of “chai” add up to 18. I learned this around the time of B.’s bat mitzvah, when she started receiving checks from relatives in weird random amounts — a check for $36? or $72? It was mystifying until someone explained the tradition of giving sums that are multiples of “chai.”

And then 54 — thrice eighteen — is the age at which my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later. Almost two decades after that, I learned that I had inherited the BRCA2 gene that creates a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I undertook preventive surgeries so my actual risk of breast/ovarian cancer is now very low — lower than that of the general non-BRCA population. But still, the age 54 carries undefined emotional weight for me. I’m not sure how I will react to it. Part of me irrationally assumes I will follow in her path, and that age 54 signals doom. Another part is prepared to celebrate every day after 54 that I’m cancer-free — Hooray! I made it another day longer than expected!

What does this all add up to, all these 18s and multiples of 18?  B. took the graphing calculator to school for her math final today, but that’s not why I’m stymied.  Perhaps this is just continued perplexity at the strangeness of a system where children’s birthdays inspire joy and wonder, but our own aging feels scary and bittersweet, if not downright sad.

At some point in those years between 18 and 54, birthdays shifted from being a moment when doors perpetually opened more — and more! and more! —  to a moment when they wobble on their hinges and maybe start inching towards closure.


The black hole of parenthood

January 30, 2010

I fell into that black hole of parenthood again yesterday. 

It happens increasingly often – I realize that something that feels recent to me actually happened decades ago. I’ve concluded that my 16 years of being a parent are a kind of black hole that swallows and collapses the passage of time. Fast forward: One minute it’s 1993, next minute it’s 2010!

Yesterday’s black hole moment came from a San Francisco Chronicle interview with Patrick Stewart, who played the wonderful Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which Sam and I watched assiduously (obsessively?) in our pre-parent days. 

Patrick Stewart and William Shatner answer questions at a Star Trek convention in SF, Jan. 2010. Photo by Lacy Atkins/The Chronicle

Stewart mentioned that he had started playing Picard 23 years ago. 

Twenty-three years! 

That seemed so much longer than I would have estimated. It felt to me like maybe twelve or fifteen years since Sam and I started watching the show. Certainly a while, but not a quarter century. Not twenty-three years!

Another recent instance: The son of my sister-in-law got married in January for a second time. My sister-in-law was talking about the wedding and mentioned that her son was 38. I almost fell out of my chair. Thirty-eight! I still think of him as a 22-year-old, just-out-of-college techie whiz-kid. And now he’s thirty-eight?

 I did the math about my sister-in-law’s son and realized I was missing 16 years. Those 16 years had just slipped by me somehow. And how old is my daughter? Sixteen.

That’s when it hit me about the parenthood black hole.

Some whole swatches of pop culture and politics got sucked into that black hole. For instance, I don’t know much pop music from the 1990s. Nirvana who? We were too busy playing Broadway Kids and Raffi in the car all the time.

I kind of missed Health Care Reform Debacle, Round 1 (but oh joy, I got to experience Round 2 this year). I missed nearly any popular movie from the ‘90s and early ‘00s that didn’t involve a princess, talking animals, or wizards with British accents.

And then my 40s vanished wholesale. One minute I was 35, an eager young newspaper reporter, and now suddenly I am 52 and my industry is on life-support and the AARP keeps sending me membership solicitations.

Of course, the parenthood black hole is finite.  We have only one child, and in two and a half years she will leave for college. Already she’s receding from our daily lives – lots of sleepovers at friends’, hours in her room with the door closed, plans to travel to Israel for a month with a group of other local teens this summer. This year more than ever I feel like the ground is being laid for us to become empty nesters.

So when she’s gone, will time slow down again? Will years feel like years again, and not like minutes?

Maybe it’s not just parenthood that causes this. Maybe it’s being involved and engaged in life. You get involved, you get busy, time passes, and… poof! Patrick Stewart is 70 and you’re 52. 

I don’t know, but I hope things slow down. I love being engaged, I’ve loved being a parent (well, most of the time), but I also don’t want life to flit by so fast.

I kind of miss sitting in a really tedious college lecture or City Council meeting and thinking: “God, this is lasting forever. Won’t it ever be over?”

Forget cryogenics.  Tedium may be the key to living forever. Or at least feeling like it.

Taken aback by the “r” word

January 3, 2010

At a New Year’s Day party, I ran into an old friend whom I first met through a mothers’ group when our daughters were infants. The talk turned to work and she mentioned that she plans to retire at 59, which is about a half dozen years off for her.

I felt my chest tighten with a kind of shocked panic. I did not want to hear this. I did not want to think about this.


It feels deeply threatening that someone whom I consider a peer is starting to talk about retirement. I’m barely adapting to other signs of the passage of time – that my daughter is no longer the romping puppy whom we took to the zoo on weekends, or that she will be gone to college in two and a half years.

And now… retirement?!

I’m not anywhere near ready to retire. I feel like I have barely made a mark on the world. Admittedly, I’ve spent almost 30 years in the post-collegiate workforce,  so I have a fair amount of road behind me. But my career consists of a bunch of splotchy patches: A half dozen years as a reporter. A year of maternity leave. Back to reporting. Six years working on a book and helping start a school. A few more years of newspaper reporting. Most recently, a year of unemployment and working on fiction.

I haven’t had anything resembling the classic career of my parents’ generation. That would have meant moving steadily up a career ladder, from small newspapers to bigger newspapers to even bigger papers or jobs in newsroom management.

Instead, I’ve done a bunch of stuff, but sometimes it feels just like that – “stuff,” not an organized and coherent whole. I don’t feel like I’ve fulfilled my potential or reached any kind of pinnacle or even had a chance to show my capabilities.

And most days, that’s okay. I assume there’s more time: If I can get this novel into publishable shape, that will be an achievement. When I get my next job, I’ll have time to make some kind of mark. I typically think of my future as wide open, pretty much as I did in my 20s or 30s or 40s.

But then here comes this friend talking about retiring.

And retirement signifies to me: You’re done. Through. You’ve had your moment on the stage and now it’s time for the next act to step forward — even if you barely had time to stutter through the first few lines of your monologue. Even if you had so much more to say.

I know, this is just narrow and old-fashioned thinking. If you love what you do, there’s no need to retire, ever. People today join the Peace Corps in their 60s. They campaign for elected office in their 70s. They run marathons and write best-selling novels at any age. Leonard Cohen did an awesome concert tour last spring at age 74. And so on.

But still… retirement. It is a sea-change moment. It’s a reminder that our road is finite, it goes in just one direction, and that we are pretty far along on it.

I don’t like it.

On the other hand, most of the time I am very happy living in the “midlife” part of Midlife Bat Mitzvah.

Midlife = experienced. Midlife = wise. Midlife = lots of stuff still to come.

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to stay in “midlife” for a long time. My friend may be getting ready to retire, but I’m uncoupling my engine from hers. We may have had daughters at the same time, and watched them grow up at the same pace, but I am not on her timetable when it comes to work and careers.

I’m going to forget that entire conversation. I’m not going to think about retirement.

I’m going to focus on 2010.

2010 will mark 30 years since I graduated from college. Thirty years since I moved to California. Twenty years since I got married.

And I have two over-arching goals for 2010, bigger than studying to become a Bat Mitzvah:

(1) Get a publishing contract for one of my novels.

(2) Figure out what kind of work I’m going to do next.  (Hint to self: It’s not newspaper or magazine journalism.)