Older Women: The Bonus Evolution Hadn’t Planned On

Jennifer Cheyne at U.C. Berkeley, the gateway to her new life.

In our world, where youth is so highly valued, one might imagine that being a 50-year-old undergraduate among so many young women here at U.C. Berkeley is hard on my pride. These “girls”—virtually every one of them tediously beautiful for some reason—are prized by evolution’s goals and society’s tastes. And they have time in a way that I am aware I do not.  Most of life is ahead of them, and their baggage is as light as a knapsack, comparatively. Their skin glows, wrinkle-free, and makeup is a complete option. They wear sleeveless tops when it’s hot because nothing waggles if they shake salt and pepper onto their food in public restaurants or wave to friends across a crowded lecture hall. They can even wear the shortest of shorts and attract—rather than horrify—males of both their own age and mine.

But, funny enough, I have only come to feel better about myself the further I go in my rather belated education. The other day, I was trying to understand why that should be. It’s not as if I am a wise, elder professor, settled into a successful position in life, teaching and mentoring the youth from my podium at the front of the class.

Still, sharing the student seats with women who could be my offspring, I would honestly rather be in my own shoes than theirs, as well as in my own skin—wrinkles and waggles and all.

The reason, as it turns out, is that I like who I am now, living what I’ve lived, knowing what I know. How life will blindside some of them! How marriage and raising children will be full of—joys, yes —but also hard lessons, wrong paths, tough choices . . .  It’s lovely knowing how many children I will have (one), and what kind of person he will be. I also like knowing that I have had some heartbreaks that were humdingers, and yet I survived them—and will again, if that’s how it goes.  And I really like knowing within a date or two whether a relationship with someone is even a workable venture. This is a time when, with so many mysteries and decisions behind us, we can think on other things.

It has begun to break my heart when I hear a woman speak as though her best years are behind her, or that she is no longer valid as a player in life’s game. It’s as if the rules that were true when we lived in caves were still in place and most of us have agreed to keep living by them. In evolution, surviving to pass on genetic material is ultimately all that matters. Attraction and sex and offspring, period.

Men can contribute much longer, but once a female cannot attract a mate and bear that next generation, she is of little further use to the evolutionary scheme. Indeed, unless we want to babysit, it’s kind of hard to figure out what role we’re expected to take up next, even today. Ironically, this lack of an edict might be our ticket to set our own course. So much freedom can leave one feeling adrift, true, but knowing who we really are, it’s easier to unearth the source of one’s particular joys, and therein lies the guiding star.

Someone asked me once if I could recall a time when I had been truly content. I had to think about it.  So often, the happiness was mixed with some anxiety or other. But then I remembered that time after a breakup years earlier, reclining on my sofa with a stack of books and no plans on my calendar. I had some charming idea that I’d read for as long as it took until I could comprehend where we’d gone wrong. That did not happen—well, maybe a little—but I did find that I enjoyed the quiet, the stack of books, and my goal of researching to understand.


One key to contentment: a dog (but not a puppy).

This wasn’t all of my happiness, but it was a key. Certain friendships—and not others—gave me joy. A certain amount of order, but not too much. A degree of quality in my clothes and possessions. A cat. A dog (but not a puppy). A bay nearby with boats on it. Impassioned anger at injustice. Compassionate acceptance of my flaws. The pieces came together and I saw myself and how I wanted to live.

In my imagination, my human companion would be a fit to this. Visual, funny, content just to be, gentle in nature, empathic and able to connect. When I meet this combination, I will recognize it. Until then, I am happy. And, happy, I have so much to give.

We older women may just be the bonus that evolution hadn’t planned on.

From this place—one that is there for us all, if we’d only inhabit it—we are an asset to our communities, to those we meet, to humankind.

There are realities we all face, I know that. The world believes what the TV set tells it, and this affects the work we can do and the money we can make. But if we can become a sort of unofficial club, we could acknowledge, at least to each other, that we have a secret knowledge others can’t imagine. The knowledge of women who have seen much, lived much, survived much. With a light heart, let’s write our club motto over our mirrors: Experientia. Sapientia. Gratia.  Experience. Wisdom. Grace.

Look around, to our club’s leaders—those who have excelled, who have confidence and intelligence, even with imperfect bodies and too-real faces—and don’t pick them apart by TV’s standards. Rather, know that they are we, and we are they. Young women, bless their hearts, cannot possibly compete with what a woman of a certain age can accomplish when she brings the force of her fully formed personality to the table. And it is sexy stuff.

As Michael Drury, the (yes, female) author of Advice to a Young Wife from a Old Mistress, put it: “One is born female, but being a woman is a personal accomplishment.” We have achieved it. Now we need to know the worth of it and let others know it just by how we carry ourselves and refer to ourselves. If we know it, it will come through as loud as any TV signal, and we can be our own best advertisement. It is late; there is no time to lose.

The View from the Claw-Foot Tub

November 25, 2011 by  
Filed under Musings, Travel

Outside my window, multiple chimneys appearing in every direction punctuate the grey Parisian sky. Maybe it’s because of images I’d seen in coffee table books about ‘The Lost Generation’ of Hemingway’s day, but as I float in the deep, warm water of a claw-foot bathtub admiring this classic view, I feel as if I’ve been here before. Alone in my friend’s apartment on Rue Pergolese, I’m awakened from my reverie as the phone rings.

“Why are you still there?”

“I am nervous leaving. I don’t even know how to order food.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, just say café crème and deux croissant.”

I am 24 years old. It is my first trip to Europe.

After being prodded out the door, I wander the streets of this glorious city on a diet of café crème and croissant. By days end, albeit a little jittery from all the coffee, I am madly in love with Paris.

Part of the thrill of being there, I think, came from the fact that I was alone, able to discover its beauty at my own pace. I usually agree that, as a foreigner, having a friend who knows their way around is the best way to find your way in a strange city.

But not in Paris.

Four years later, I went to Paris on my honeymoon, and for years after we visited the city often, with and without our children. It was always grand and sometimes chaotic with children in tow, but it was never the same as that first magical time. It saddened me to think maybe I was maybe living a French version of the famous Samuel Johnson quote, “When you tire of London you tire of life.”

I am happy to report that I am tired of neither life nor Paris.

Recently, my husband went to Ireland for a wedding and asked if I would meet him in Dublin. A Parisian bolt of lighting hit me and I suggested that we meet in Paris instead. We left on the same day but to different countries. A giddy sense of exploration came back to me as I buckled into my window seat. By the time I landed at Charles de Gaulle, with my fractured French and renewed sense of discovery, the 24-year-old woman in the claw foot tub was born again.

Once in the city I found that not having someone to cross-reference with on Metro directions or menu deciphering put me in touch with my slightly bewildered but excited younger self. I also did not have to worry about someone else’s schedule or taste. It was totally self indulgent and divine.

There is a guilty pleasure being alone in a city that must have been created for women.

Standing on Pont Neuf overlooking the Seine I remember thinking I agreed with what a friend had said: “In Paris I always feel beautiful.”

(Photos by Dore Hammond.)

Back Story: My Other Writing Lives

October 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings, Pleasures

Photo: Noah Addis for New Jersey Star-Ledger

WVFC readers know Janet Golden as a thoughtful writer on thorny social and political issues—and as half of one of our favorite humor writing teams. But to most of the world, she’s a professor and historian. Here, Golden reflects on her multiple writing lives, how they balance each other (or not), and the rewards of humor writing as measured in crab cakes. –Ed.

In late middle age I’ve found myself taking some detours from the path I’ve been on for decades.  In my public life I’m a history professor and historian of medicine. In my new, other, semi-secret life I’m a humor writer.

Not a lot of my colleagues, friends, and neighbors know this about me.  But some do, and since both my “lives” involve writing, they ask if they are at all alike.  Does my work writing about infant mortality, the politics around fetal alcohol syndrome, pediatrics, and child health policy somehow enliven my short humor pieces? Absolutely not. The joy of humor writing lies in the fact that it in no way resembles my life as a historian.

Consider publication.  Like most historians, I spend years in archives deciphering bad handwriting, making sense of obscure documents, and inhaling dust.  As a humorist, I find everything I need via Google.  Writing history takes time, multiple drafts, careful vetting by colleagues and peer-reviewers.  The journey from submission to publication is years.  The reward for publishing an article is the opportunity to buy offprints for lots of money. The reward for publishing books is the opportunity to buy them at a discount. I then give them away to the friends who read the drafts or listened to me complain about hard it was to get it writing done while also juggling teaching and service work and family life.
Humor writing is quick and easy.  And fun. I write with a friend. We exchange a few drafts.  We submit. We get accepted.  A few weeks later we are in print (or maybe it is a few days later and we are on the web), and then pretty often—though not always—we get a check.  No, it isn’t a lot of money, but as we pointed out in an article we published a while back (for pay), it keeps us in crab cakes, which we enjoy during summer visits to the New Jersey shore.

Humor writing comes pretty easily to me. I guess I’ve always been a funny, sarcastic person and I do dispense a lot of jokes in my classes. Another question I’m often asked is whether this has made me a better writer of history.  I don’t think so.  I wish my ability to write several humor pieces in a week would somehow translate into writing more pages of whatever chapter I’m in the midst of, but it just doesn’t. I’ve always hoped that as a historian I’d get better and quicker with practice, but instead I often feel like an aging athlete, slowing down and asking more and more questions about my abilities. (I’d like to make a Roger Federer analogy here, but neither my tennis nor my historical work is that good.)

The pleasure I get in humor writing—in punching out pieces, submitting them and seeing them in print right away—led me to yet another kind of writing life: producing editorials and journalism pieces.  I’ve written about gender politics, attempts to change child labor laws, breastfeeding policies, access to maternity care, the Affordable Care Act and the incubator station featured in “Boardwalk Empire.” I love sounding off, especially when I can draw on the knowledge I’ve gained from years of researching and writing history.  But there is a downside.  Publish something that’s widely accessible and you’ll get hateful comments and bizarre criticisms taking issue with everything you say, or don’t say.  My historical work gets reviewed by polite fellow scholars who never accuse me of wasting government money or being a baby-killer. They don’t call me an idiot either. Until I started publishing in mass-market venues I never really understood why playwrights, actors, and musicians always mentioned in interviews that they didn’t read reviews and kept their moms from reading them too.

The question I’m asked the most often by those who know about my other writing life is this: would I ever give up my day job? Sure. As soon as someone from the “The Daily Show” or the “Colbert Report” calls and makes me an offer, I’m resigning. Until then, you’ll find me in my office, grading coursework, meeting with students, and preparing for class. And no, commenting favorably on this article will not allow you to hand in your paper a week late!

Reinventions: My Adventures as a Film Producer

October 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies, Musings

Okay, you have a great idea for a movie.

Present day, Spring Morning: Interior. We see a bored woman in her late 40s living in the suburbs. A happily married, stay-at-home mother with three children is having coffee in a cafe. Her kids are in school, her husband is at work, and the coffee is getting cold. An elderly gentleman enters the cafe and sits next to her. As he pours cream in his coffee, he asks what she does. To her amazement she answers that she wants to make a movie about New York in the1950s. Problem: she is not a filmmaker.

As they keep talking, he wants to know more about the film and how she will produce it. Even though he doesn’t know how to produce a film either, he is happy to have “shaken the cage.”

The woman thanks the man for the inspiration, if that is what it was. From that moment on she begins her journey in film production, in which she will produce multiple award-winning films and photographs.

Fade to black.

I am that woman with the cold coffee and the hot idea and no clue what to do about either. The coffee was an easier call, I grant you, but the dramatic style was too tempting, even though it didn’t make much sense. Nor did going to New York University Film School if you graduated from college in 1978. But in I went, to study full time, sitting amid 20-year-olds as I took copious notes and learned how to produce and direct films.

As I pursued my dream, my amazing mother cooked dinners for the children when I rushed headlong into Greenwich Village to attend school five days a week. My husband and kids were behind me all the way as I snaked wires through out the house to produce my first film (a CINE Award winner). They actually said they thought it was fun when the crew camped out in our living room. For the shoot itself my teenage son worked as a focus puller, my ten-year-old daughter was on the walkie-talkie and her eight-year-old sister was working the craft table like a pro.

At the screening of the first film I produced, my husband leaned over and asked in a whisper if those were his boxer shorts on the lead actor in the bedroom argument scene. I quickly answered yes and asked him to please not talk during the screening. As far as I knew, this might be the only time I would see my work on the big screen, and I wanted to savor every minute. But it was to be the first of many screenings, not just for this film but for others—including the 1950s New York film, Pluck, that I had first spoken of in that café. To date, my films have won Best in Show awards at several film festivals, and are in the library collections of Columbia University, Trinity College, Magnum Film Archives and The Hoover Archives at Stanford University.

As the film ends and the titles come up, we see the middle-aged film producer, mother of three, beginning a new adventure. She is walking into Mount Sinai Hospital, bringing four of her large, color photographs to hang in the new Dubin Breast Center at the Hospital. But that is another story.

Forget the fadeout. To be continued.

The ‘World’s Most Beautiful Woman’ Is 41 (VIDEO)

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Aging, Media, Musings, Newsmakers

The first time I ever felt like I was “over the hill” was on my 26th birthday.  That day I became ineligible to be Miss America, because I was too old. And that was so long ago that the pageant had not yet dropped its age limit to 24.

Truth be told, I never had the figure or the inclination to enter a beauty pageant. But there was something disconcerting in realizing that even if I did start frequenting gyms and beauty salons, I would never be “your ideal,” “the queen of feminity” or “the fairest of the fair,” as the Miss America song goes. It felt so much better to reject the pageant than it did to have the pageant reject me.

So the announcement last week that 41-year-old Jennifer Lopez had landed the cover of People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” issue was welcome news, even though this selection — like all judgments of who or what is beautiful — comes from the eye of the beholder.

A precise definition of beauty has eluded humankind for centuries. John Keats boiled it down to “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Pre-Raphaelite painters had a certain vision of beauty; Hollywood plastic surgeons have quite another. National Geographic tried to tackle the subject in an article titled “The Enigma of Beauty,” and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is focusing on “The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900” in an exhibition that runs through July 17.

But when it comes to women, society’s definition of beauty has been closely linked to youth. Just look at fashion runways, where teenage models too young to enter the Miss America pageant display clothing meant for women who are too old to be Miss America.

In the 1980s, a 41-year-old woman never would have been dubbed “most beautiful” and would hardly have been considered capable of being a TV personality. In 1983, Christine Craft sued a Kansas City television station, contending that she had been removed from her news anchor job because her bosses decided she was not attractive enough or deferential enough to her male co-anchor. She was 38 years old. Certainly it would have been unthinkable back then that 65-year-old Diane Sawyer could anchor ABC World News.

While there have been plenty of advances in this area, some women still face the tyranny of advancing years.  In 2008, three Kansas City newscasters over age 45 sued their TV station – the same station that Christine Craft sued — claiming age discrimination. “Even unaffected newsroom employees have commented about the publicly humiliating and degrading treatment of women over 40,” the lawsuit said. The case was settled out of court last September.

Although age remains a factor for many women, Jennifer Lopez represents a significant milestone. “I feel happy and proud,” she said. “Proud that I’m not 25!”


Dressing My Age Means…What?

March 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Fashion, Musings

Dressing my age? Some days I know exactly what that means. Other times, I’m not so sure.

We like to claim that “a woman should feel free to wear whatever she wants,” and I mostly believe that. But that’s also one of those sayings that I wish were true more than it actually is true. I think most of us can think of times we’ve seen mature women dressed in outfits that just seemed wrong—not because they were ill-fitting, but because they seemed meant for someone much, much younger.

I know—who am I to decide what’s “much too young?” It’s hard to say, but I kinda know it when I see it, and I don’t want to be that woman.

In general, my attire tends toward stylish but not trendy. I like to look good, but I’m a lazy shopper, so I need clothes that will work for many seasons.  I can’t be bothered with an item of clothing that has a short shelf life.

And that’s why I actually might have been that woman a few times, though I don’t like to admit it. The downside of staying pretty much the same size most of my adult life is that I can still fit into clothes I wore many, many years ago. At one point, I think my girlfriends were going to do an intervention on me if I didn’t stop wearing my beloved Daisy Dukes (inappropriately short cut-off denim jeans, for those unfamiliar with the term). Rather than admit that I was a little long in the tooth for shorts that short, I chose to believe that my girlfriends were just jealous because they could no longer fit into theirs. (Both statements are probably true). I eventually and reluctantly retired my short shorts…kind of. Now I wear them only on vacation. Mostly I dress like a grown-up now.

So here’s why this whole concept of dressing one’s age is on my mind lately: because I am delighted to say, the mini is back.

I’ve always loved short skirts and dresses. But then, at some point, I started wearing my hemlines at a more respectable length. I decided that if I was going to shake my head at other women who looked like they’d been shopping in the juniors department, then I should stop being one of them.   I had almost convinced myself that they looked foolish, but I looked cute. But it was getting tough to keep up the self-delusion. When I started a new job, I used that as an excuse to try out a new look. I  bought myself a few skirts and dresses with hemlines designed for the mature woman. So boring.

I thought I looked matronly. Like I was losing my mojo. Over time, my hemlines started to creep back up—not quite to mini length, but up above my knees. Where they belonged.

I heard or read somewhere that if you were old enough to wear a trend the first time around then you’re probably too old for it the next time. Makes sense, right?

But you know what? To heck with that. Remember how I said that I no longer want to be that woman who’s rocking an outfit that’s too young? I’ve decided that I don’t really care. I’m wearing my minis. Proudly. For the fun of it all.

Dressing too young? Too dowdy? Or pulling it off? Check our Facebook Page for a photo album of celebs who might–or might not–be hitting it just right.

The Menopause Libido Myth: Dr. Pat’s Notebook

Menopause. Hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disruption, fatigue and crankiness. It surely can make any woman feel less than sexy. But don’t believe that “Menopause took my libido away” line as the primary reason for a loss of sexual interest.

There are often other factors at work that can diminish your sex drive long before menopause—for starters, the quality of your partnership and your attitude toward sex.

Some women have never had much of a libido. They feigned sexual interest in order to date and mate and reproduce. With children came exhaustion and the nightly prayer, “Oh Lord, not tonight,” while their partners prayed for sex. This dance of unbalanced desire continued until these women found their big out: “Menopause took my libido away.”

On the other hand, there are women who were always interested in sex, but bored or sexually frustrated in their marriage. When they reach menopause, they’re more than happy to give up unsatisfying sex. Now, they can claim “Menopause took my libido away.”

Women who liked sex and were happily orgasmic can lose interest in sex if their relationship becomes dysfunctional, or an affair has eroded the trust in the marriage. These women actually look forward to saying “Menopause took my libido away.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There are many women who keep their libido in great shape after they reach menopause. They like sex for the sake of sex. To them, initiating sex is both a right and a turn-on. Shared sexual power and a mutual interest in setting aside time for making love has kept their menopausal libido alive and well. Menopause did not “take their libido away.”

What can you do to take charge again and ensure a healthy libido well after menopause?

  • Plan for a fulfilled sex life well before you reach menopause. Don’t wait until a pattern of denial and poor behavior in your relationship make isolation in bed inevitable.
  • Talk to your partner about finding time for emotional and physical intimacy. Develop or continue a little public display of affection.
  • Discuss the issues of physical change that will come to both of you with age, like vaginal dryness, thinner genital tissue, and potential erectile dysfunction. Face it before it happens. Don’t let shame and embarrassment ruin your sex life later on.
  • Most importantly—and I can’t emphasize this enough: Avoid women who complain that all their husbands ever want is SEX. These women are toxic. Choose friends with happy couplings. Choose to spend time with women who like to laugh about sex and themselves, and still notice who is hot and who is not.

Sex doesn’t cost a thing. It improves longevity, quality of life, and overall health. Menopausal sex without the fear of pregnancy, the mess of the monthly cycle, or young children knocking at the bedroom door can be a spontaneous and joyful part of the second half of life.

Don’t let anyone tell you that “Menopause will take your libido away.”

“Eat Pray Love” — A Pretty Woman Redeems this Overlong Search for Self (VIDEO)

August 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

Summer entertainment is synonymous with escapism. A quick look at the local multiplex and you’ll find improbable action thrillers, CGI-animated features and hundred-million-dollar movies based on comic books. Summer releases in general skew toward the very young and the very male.

The last time I checked, Eat, Pray, Love had not been released as a graphic novel. Which may be one reason so many women have been looking forward to it. I wish I could give it an unmitigated “thumbs-up.” But given the theme of the film, perhaps a more balanced review is more appropriate anyway.

Published in 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir struck a chord. In fact, it struck more than 6 million chords in some 40 languages. Her autobiographical story of a woman who trekked the world to find herself is part travel guide, part ensemble story, and part personal diary. It’s well written and held a place on the New York Times bestseller list for 150 weeks (57 in the top spot). And it’s also become a bit of a movement. Thousands of the book’s most loyal fans don’t limit their engagement with Gilbert to an armchair adventure. They book their own trips to the places she wrote about.

Clearly, the new movie has big shoes to fill.

Eat Pray Love, released earlier this month, is directed by Ryan Murphy, best known for his breakout TV series “Nip/Tuck” and this year’s Emmy favorite “Glee.” Murphy, along with Jennifer Salt, also wrote the screenplay. In interviews, Murphy has asserted that he went through dozens of dog-eared copies of the book while he made the movie. And he deliberately shot the scenes in the order in which they occurred in the book. The script is devotedly faithful to Gilbert’s book, which will no doubt please her legions of fans. Unfortunately, this may be one of its greatest flaws.

In her quest for self, our heroine, Liz Gilbert, spent four months in Italy, four months in India, and four months in Indonesia. That’s a lot of introspection.

It won’t take you an entire year to watch Eat Pray Love, but it may feel like it—the movie runs nearly two and a half hours. You get the sense that the creative team was a bit too fond of the source material. Fewer flashbacks, less prelude, less clichéd self-help dialogue would have helped the movie.  So would more time in the editing suite.

That said, it would be a shame to cut any of Robert Richardson’s glorious cinematography. Each location is bathed in an almost supernatural light. At times it feels like one of those PBS specials comprising extraordinary aerial footage set to opera. Except in Eat Pray Love, we get to touch down and … well … eat and pray and love.

In real life, Gilbert went through a bitter and confusing divorce. She then went to Italy to find her appetite for life, to India to find her relationship with God, and to Indonesia to find balance. By the end of the movie, Julia Roberts has not only found those elusive keys to self, she also gets to take home Javier Bardem. Not too shabby, as quests go.

Roberts is wondrous as Liz. Is there any actress in Hollywood with a more charming grin or infectious laugh? Absolutely critical to the success of the movie, and the book before it, is our ability to relate to Liz’s situation. The story has been criticized as wish fulfillment for the privileged—how many of us, after all, have the resources to take a year off to eat, pray and love? But you never doubt that Roberts’ Liz is in true pain. As she finds herself, she also rediscovers her ability to bring compassion, understanding, and joy to others. It is a generous performance, and Roberts’ extreme likability is the main thread that keeps this overlong film memoir together.

I can’t give the movie a rave review, but it has many positive moments. One of the great pleasures of Eat Pray Love is watching Roberts herself take great pleasure in a plate of succulent spaghetti or a slice—or several—of the best pizza in Naples. Rumor has it that the actress gained ten pounds on the set. Like Tilda Swinton in I Am Love earlier this summer, Roberts’ Liz doesn’t simply regain her appetite through the act of eating, she rediscovers passion.

Another point in the movie’s favor is the cast. Murphy has had great success with ensemble TV, and in Eat Pray Love, he surrounds Roberts with an extraordinary troupe. Even minor characters with one or two lines are presented as fully realized human beings. Gilbert returns to the real world with new jeans (byproduct of all that pasta), a new sense of self, a new love of her life, and an international extended family that will surely last as long and be as treasured as any of the above.

The ensemble includes Billy Cruddup, James Franco, Tuva Novotny, Rushita Singh, Christine Hakim, Hadi Subiyanto and scores of other actors in literally every shape and size. Among the best of these is Richard Jenkins as “Richard from Texas,” a fellow devotee at the Indian ashram, whose painful story seems to break open the cocoon of self absorption in which Liz has been traveling until she meets him.

By the time Liz reaches Bali, she is ready to love again. Enter the dashing, rugged yet tender, divorced Brazilian Felipé. Felipé calls everyone “darling:” his grown son, his pets, and our girl Liz. I must confess that if I were Liz, he would have had me at “olá,” too. By now, Liz has paid her dues, eaten her pizzas, prayed her 216-verse guru gita. After two-plus hours, you may be checking your watch, but you’re definitely rooting for her.

The movie is beautiful. The heroine is beautiful. The concept of traveling to find yourself? Beautiful. Less would have been more. But, there are worse places you could spend a summer afternoon than surrounded by all that beauty.

Eat Pray Love will not help you attain nirvana. But surely it will get you a lot closer than the movie playing in the next theater: Resident Evil: Afterlife 3.

After the Heart Attack: Sex is Still Good for You

Sex is good for you—even if you’ve recently had a heart attack—and those who discuss sex with their doctors are much more likely to resume it.

At an American Heart Association meeting this past spring, a study from the University of Chicago was presented on this topic. The findings: among 1,760 heart attack survivors (576 of them women), both men (at 30 percent) and women (at 40 percent) were more likely to avoid sex if they hadn’t discussed the topic with their doctors. And the majority of them hadn’t: among the respondents, only 38.8 percent of the men and 17.5 percent of the women said they’d talked with their doctors about resuming sexual relations.

Many patients worry that sexual activity might trigger the next heart attack. Often, patients’ partners also fear it might do damage, so both of them can become reluctant and avoidant. But there’s good news here. The truth is that sexual intercourse has many health benefits, and curbing it post-heart attack can actually be harmful.

Sexual activity releases endorphins, reduces stress, and enhances mood. It decreases depression, emotional liability, and anxiety. Intimacy is important in healthy relationships, and those who enjoy intimate relationships generally live longer. Of course, sex is also a good form of exercise, as well as a confidence builder in a person working to recover, physically and emotionally, from a heart attack.

One study from the New England Research Institute in Massachusetts, published this past January, found that men who have sex at least twice a week have a 45 percent decreased risk of a heart attack compared to men who have sex once a month. Although that study did not include women, most cardiologists believe that women reap similar heart-health benefits. Another study, from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, found that sex once or twice a week in winter can boost the immune system and reduce the risk of catching a cold or the flu. And other studies have found that regular ejaculations can decrease a man’s risk of prostate cancer.

Most experts agree that if you can do the equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs, you’re fit enough to resume sex with a regular partner. One caveat, though: as part of their evaluation and treatment, many heart attack patients undergo an angiogram or “cardiac catheterization,” in which a long, thin tube is inserted into an artery in the groin. This artery should be well healed before resuming intense physical activity, sex included. It is usually fully healed within a week.

The University of Chicago study that I mentioned earlier, which was presented by Dr. Stacey Tessler Lindau, is a great reminder for doctors and patients alike to discuss the health benefits of sex—not only about when it’s safe to resume after a life-altering event such as a heart attack, but as part of a personal health plan in general. Sex is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and just like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction, it should be discussed with your doctor regularly.

Class Reunion: Elena Kagan and Hunter High

June 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsmakers

Between now and next Monday, when confirmation hearings begin in the Senate on the nomination of Elena Kagan  for the U.S. Supreme Court, many in the nation will be watching: law schools, pundits across the spectrum, high-powered attorneys planning to appeal to the Court. But none, perhaps, will watch more avidly than alumnae of Kagan’s New York City high school, Hunter College High School.

Founded in the 1890s, HCHS has ever since offered a college-prep course of study to students from the five boroughs of New York City. And on Sunday, June 6, the building was crammed with women and men who, at age ten or eleven, passed a highly competitive entrance exam to become Hunter High students. Until 1973, all those students were girls, making Hunter High a singular place for girls to turn into women. Barbara Krumsiek (class of 1963), CEO of the Calvert Group, recently told the New York Times that “I think it really drove home that girls could do anything.”

That Sunday, Hunter graduates flooded into its current building on East 94th Street. Inside, it looks like countless New York City schools, with dropped ceilings and blue floors. But next to the Alumni Weekend welcome signs,  a framed collage of Kagan’s yearbook photo and clippings saluted the 1977 graduate.

Kagan wasn’t at the reunion; neither was the other currently-most-famous graduate, actor Cynthia Nixon (class of 1984), on screen in this summer’s Sex and the City 2. A few other notable alums  were there, including Civil War historian Martha Hodes (’75), author of The Sea Captain’s Wife and journalist Donna Minkowitz (’81), author of Ferocious Romance.

But the event wasn’t about the boldface names associated with the school. “We are all in paroxysms of joy about Kagan,” Alumni Association vice president Kelly Washburn said that Sunday. “But there are a lot of heroes here.” Washburn added that she is still learning about their stories. “It took me a long time to feel this way, but I’ve come to realize—we really are a tribe,” she said.

That morning, members from classes spanning 1936-2005 crowded into classrooms that suddenly felt small. Women’s Voices for Change decided to check in with some of the tribe’s elders: women who graduated Hunter High before 1950, before it was even legal, in some places, for women to wear trousers in public.

“The most interesting thing I remember about our class,” educator Phyllis Kavett told us, “is that at our 50th reunion, no one talked about their marriages. No mention of husbands—we didn’t even talk about our grandchildren! We talked about who became department chair, who made vice president—that sort of thing.”

They did share memories, though. One was the end-of-semester between Kavett and classmate Elaine Kooperstein: “Our idea of something exciting at the end of the semester? Whoever got the highest score on the math Regents exam got taken to a French restaurant. That was it…. I rarely got taken out,” she added, pointing to Kooperstein, who was hired after college to teach math— at an all-boys school.

Throughout her subsequent career teaching math in Union City, New Jersey, Kooperstein told her students what she’d first learned at Hunter:  ” ‘In the real world, no one gives you the equation and asks you to solve for X. Life is a series of word problems.’ ”

Asked about Kagan, the class of ’45 seemed to see a younger sister of sorts in the Supreme Court nominee.“When I heard, I was very happy to know my school was called prestigious” by the outside world, said Kavett. “The article mentioned that she put it in her resume—same as I’ve been doing all my life!” She pointed out that the pre-1950 classes had brought the first women to math and engineering departments at colleges like Cornell University (from which Kavett  graduated in 1948) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, she recalled, one Hunter friend attended a lecture only to find that “all the rows behind her and in front of her were empty—the men refused to sit there!”

Kavett herself (left) eventually joined the faculty at New Jersey’s Kean University, developing innovative curricula in mathematics education. She also co-founded the New Jersey Association for Elected Women Officials. “Hunter High empowered us to run the women’s movement, you know. When we saw a need, we started an organization.”

So did the oldest alum in the room that morning, Norma Alexander Abdullah, whose name is listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hall of Fame for her work in helping to launch the United Federation of Teachers, the Freedom Now Party in Harlem, and the Labor Party of New York City.

Also breaking multiple barriers during those years was a classmate who decided to crack open the banking industry, after discovering that—unlike classmates Kavett and Kooperstein—she hated teaching. “I started at the Bank of New York, and they had do make some adjustments,” she told WVFC. “I was the first African-American employee they had, and one of the first women.”  She eventually became a banker at Merrill Lynch.

After an hour of swapping stories, the group moved to the school auditorium, where representatives of each class waited to share highlights. The class of 1960, which appeared to have brought all 300 of their members, sang to the school’s venerable Latin teacher, Irving Kizner. They cheered Kagan on while proudly noting that Hunter gave her a head start, citing an oft-repeated line among alumni: “We got a college education in high school, and a high school education in college.”

Members of the class of 1970 spoke of school strikes after the invasion of Cambodia, while others shared vivid memories of the school’s near-elimination in the fierce New York City budget battles of that decade. That peril, Washburn and others noted, was what bred the Hunter alumni association in the first place, formalizing an often-fractious family.

Elena Kagan likely knows she doesn’t needs to lobby for their support, nor would it make much of a difference in the upcoming hearings. But she might take comfort in the vision of the Class of ’45 standing guard at her shoulder, daring senators and pundits to cross a Hunter girl.

Taking (Back) My Time

April 8, 2010 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

Like Alice, Billie keeps going through the looking glass. (Image from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, via Daily Mail UK.)

I’m supposed to be doing something else right now, but I’ve chosen to steal these minutes to set down my thoughts on my time and how I choose to use it.

Wait a minute. “Supposed?” Where did that come from?

Old habits die hard. Theoretically, my life is at a point that allows me to choose what I do, 24/7. Yet, as Andrew Marvell complained in “To His Coy Mistress:”

. . . At my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

Every spring I give away an hour of my time in order to enjoy more daylight during the warm months. And I miss it terribly until the fall, when I get it back again.

I don’t have much choice about Daylight Saving Time, but there are many other, more subtle manipulations of my precious moments that I could resist if I were stronger-willed.

The man I married in 1964—let’s see now, that was 46 years ago—was constantly in a hurry. We couldn’t walk anywhere without his abjuring me to speed up: “Come on, now, let’s go,” he’d say, pacing furiously and turning back to prompt me. He died in 1999, but his voice is still with me, urging me to step lively. The only way I can slow down is to take a deep breath and make a conscious effort.

Okay, here’s a case in point. Just now, as I was immersed in thinking about this subject, the telephone rang.

Did I let the machine pick it up? No.

I stopped writing, got up and answered. Long story short: someone asking me if I would like to do something that I’ve already said three times I don’t want to do.

Another poem springs to mind: Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Deep in my own thoughts, I respond to an external stimulus and what do I find? All too often, a “person on business from Porlock.”

This phrase, used by Coleridge as the reason for the poem being unfinished, has become synonymous with an unwanted intruder. And I use the redundant term advisedly, to emphasize the undesirable nature of the interruption.

In Coleridge’s England, the word “person” connoted a lower-class, non-genteel entity. Being in business, or the trades, was not desirable; one could not engage in business and be a gentleman. Why Porlock, a picturesque village in Somerset, England? Not clear, except possibly as a symbol for a place without importance or meaning to the poet.

Many scholars believe Coleridge’s excuse for the unfinished work is part of the work itself, a fiction tantamount to “The dog ate my homework.”

And that’s part of the time management issue for me, too. Even when it’s no longer necessary, I feel a little guilty if I choose to do something that conflicts with what others ask of me. It’s still a struggle, but I’m getting better.

Here’s why: The decision to cooperate (or not) with others’ requests for my time is now pretty much mine most of the time. I don’t have to punch a clock or pack a lunch. I can—

Oops, gotta stop now. But you know where I’m going with this, right?

Yep, that’s right: Porlock.

Theater Review: Happily Ever After

March 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Humor, Menopause, Theater

Ever hear that song “There’s Been a Change in Me,” from the musical Beauty and the Beast, and wonder what that princess-to-be would think about the changes to come when youth was no longer on the menu?

Veteran actress Mary Martello, 57, sure did. (See Martello in the video below, accepting a 2009 award for her performance in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.) She thought it not just about Belle, the character singing that song, but all the other Disney fairy-tale figures whose youth and beauty makes them seem immortal.

The result of that question, years later: a play in which Martello, as Belle, leans against the bar of a place called Happily Ever After and confides to the audience: “You know what we have here at Happily Ever After?” She smiles. “Menopause.”

If that sounds  too much like daytime TV, fear not. Happily Ever After, which premiered this week at the Adrienne Theatre in Philadelphia, is a rollicking  comedy that feels a little like a cross between Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and that long-ago masterpiece of British commedia dell’arte, Noises Off. Those within reach of Philadelphia might want to click here to secure tickets to the play, which runs only to the end of March.

Martello’s Belle runs one of several competitive castle-cleaning companies, a necessity since her prince was lured away by Sleeping Beauty, while her Cinderella (seen above) says it’s of necessity, ever since her Charming invested the palace riches with “some guy named Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi….Who knew?”

As for menopause, Belle and Cinderella both describe it in terms that may sound familiar: as a liberation. “There was a spell on me all those years from all those hormones,”  Belle/Martello sighs. Afterward: “Freedom!”

Martello’s jokes, her delivery of songs that include the first Mr. Clean commercial (Prince Charming, gone bald, is the prototype) and her astonishing mastery of physical comedy keep the ball rolling from one episode to the next–even when she becomes a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty or an aging, gay Peter Pan, who wins your heart in a way Mary Martin never could have envisioned.

The more serious aspects of love, life and aging aren’t missing, either. Nor do they dominate: they live in the play’s mix of laughter, music, and sense of survival.

“I have been in the theatre long enough,” Martello wrote in an essay that appears in the show’s Playbill, ” to know that this change that I’m grappling with is not just mine but one I share with humankind…well, womankind…all right, at least female baby boomers.”

We agree. Next week, WVFC will run an interview with Martello, who spoke with us about her 50 years in theatre, the challenges and pleasures of doing her first one-woman show, and why she has more energy after menopause than since she was a child.

Iran News on Poetry Friday: Simin “Behbahani” Khalili’s Passport Confiscated

March 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Poetry

During last summer’s protests in Iran, while WVFC ran notes from NPR’s Jacki Lyden and honored the iconic  Forugh Farrokhzad on Poetry Friday, we never got to mention the country’s current, prized poet laureate Simin Khalili, also known by her pseudonym ‘Behbahani’ — who was hailed by the Washington Post’s Nora Boustany as “A poet who never lost her pen or soul.”

This week, Behbahani’s name and face streamed across the headlines yet again: After returning to Iran after years of exile and talking to the media about the protests, the 82-year-old poet has been barred from traveling outside the country. She told the BBC that “The moment I was due to get on the plane, a man came and took my passport away from me and said that I was banned from going abroad.” It’s not surprising, giving the international reputation enjoyed by the Nobel Prize-nominated poet.

According to the Persian Cultural Foundation, which held a symposium on her work last year in Toronto, Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran to  literary parents: noted feminist author Fakhr Ozma Arghoon was her mother and writer and newspaper editor Abbas Khalili was her father. She began writing poetry at fourteen. She’s now widely credited with reinventing the ancient Sufi verse form, the ghazal, making “a historic development in the form … as she added theatrical subjects and daily events.”

By the turn of the 20th century, Behbhani was Iran’s most famous living female poet, and inspired loyalty that reached far beyond her command of verse form.  In 2006, she told The Washington Post about being approached by police during International Women’s Day:

“Hey, don’t hurt this lady. She is Simin Behbahani,” a student in the crowd protested. “If you touch her, I will set myself on fire.”His outburst enraged the police. One of the officers lashed Behbahani’s right arm and back with a whip and then beat her with a club that emitted electric shocks, she recalled. A passing policeman recognized her, intervened and bundled her into a taxi.

Behbahani is close to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian exile poet WVFC recently named as one of our Nine Women to Run the World. Like Ebadi, Behbahani  has been vocal in support of the “green movement” in Iran following the disputed 2009 elections. When stopped last week she was on her way to Paris, where she was scheduled to read one of her poems.

Below, we present video of Behbahani speaking at UCLA in 2004 (in Persian, but you can see the charisma Tehran may fear), and one of her classic poems.


Gracefully she approached,
in a dress of bright blue silk;
With an olive branch in her hand,
and many tales of sorrows in her eyes.
Running to her, I greeted her,
and took her hand in mine:
Pulses could still be felt in her veins;
warm was still her body with life.

“But you are dead, mother”, I said;
“Oh, many years ago you died!”
Neither of embalmment she smelled,
Nor in a shroud was she wrapped.

I gave a glance at the olive branch;
she held it out to me,
And said with a smile,
“It is the sign of peace; take it.”

I took it from her and said,
“Yes, it is the sign of…”, when
My voice and peace were broken
by the violent arrival of a horseman.
He carried a dagger under his tunic
with which he shaped the olive branch
Into a rod and looking at it
he said to himself:
“Not too bad a cane
for punishing the sinners!”
A real image of a hellish pain!
Then, to hide the rod,
He opened his saddlebag.
in there, O God!
I saw a dead dove, with a string tied
round its broken neck.

My mother walked away with anger and sorrow;
my eyes followed her;
Like the mourners she wore
a dress of black silk.

Oscars 2010: The Year of the Over-40 Woman?

February 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

The nominations have been announced and analyzed, and the awards-night hysteria has yet to shift into overdrive. Which makes this a great moment to salute this year’s over-40 female Oscar contenders.

By now, everyone not living on Neptune knows that there’s a woman—a beautiful, 58-year-old woman—in the race for Best Director. And, in a delicious burst of irony, that she’s squaring off against her ex. It’s a plot line straight out of the classic Oscar playbook—critically acclaimed movie underdog going toe to toe against the high-grossing, critically acclaimed, and in this case technologically groundbreaking front-runner, with the marital back-story amping the frisson. On Oscar night, Kathryn Bigelow might just end up brushing past James Cameron on her way to collect a Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, leaving him to console himself with Avatar’s stratospheric global box-office take.

It could happen. And there are plenty of people—including a number of Academy voters—who hope it does. But let’s get real. In the history of the Oscars, Bigelow is only the fourth woman to earn a Best Director nomination, and her predecessors all went home empty-handed. (The last was Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation.) Still, this year’s doubling of the Best Picture pool from five nominees to ten yielded two films directed by women, both in their 50s—Bigelow’s Hurt Locker and An Education by Danish director Lone Scherfig—an Academy Awards first.

It’s not a bad Oscar year for acting, either. Three of the five Best Actress nominees—Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep—are 45 or older, and one of them could easily win. The same goes for Mo’Nique, who’s widely thought to have a lock on Best Supporting Actress.

It’s perversely gratifying to realize that there are films by over-40 women that didn’t even make it into the nominations, or not very far: gratifying that it now takes more than one hand to count women directors in the film industry, and perverse because, well, why weren’t their films more widely nominated? To name a few: Jane Campion’s Bright Star (nothing more than Best Costume? C’mon)… Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (which may yet win one for Meryl)…Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel (also shut out beyond Best Costume)…and Nancy Meyers’s It’s Complicated. And then there’s Betty Thomas’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel—debatable as Oscar material, perhaps, but it did pull in more than $400 million worldwide, almost twice the figure for the original Alvin movie.

So yes, it was a good year for women over 40 in the film industry. And come Oscar night we’ll be rooting for our favorites along with the rest of the world. But the real celebration will come when a great year for older women in Hollywood isn’t the exception, but simply business as usual.

Poetry Friday: Crows

January 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Poetry

Photo: Dan Addison, UVA

As I write this I am looking out of a window in an air conditioned (!) Barnes & Noble in Houston. I have just seen a crow.  Once again I am reminded of how Lisa Russ Spaar can take the particular and poetically turn it into the pertinent, the powerful, the universal.

It is snowing where I live. The shops of Houston are air conditioned as I visit. Some one of our readers in Florida is possibly applying sun protection before a beach walk. Another is drying off after last week’s California rains. And one is even having a birthday in London.

What is true of all of us is that we have been united for all of January by our great good fortune in reading a poet-in-residence as wise, as generous, as soaring of spirit and grounded in truth as Lisa Spaar, whose gloss on the poem you can see below, after the poem itself.  I bemoan the ending of this month  and at the same time celebrate this one more poem for us to take to heart.
(Laura Baudo Sillerman)

Crows, Rt. 29

Wind shifts the power line,
repairing our dark quarrel, slurred

& loaded above the rushing hour.
Our narrator is melancholy.

She rarely weeps, & mostly like this,
in the car, an intake as though to speak,

then not.  At the border,
let’s return her name, if we can.

Take it back, take it back,
she once cried, straddling her sister.
Undertow, abacus of blood
and haloed headlamps below: make silence.

At the signal, let us bellow
our call,  awe, awe, awe.

“‘Crows’ was an experiment in allowing crows hunched against wind on a power line overlooking a line of traffic at rush hour to speak, in an kind of metaphysical way, for the speaker of the lyric (“our narrator” — a woman in a car at approaching a stoplight where the crows are perched, musing) — a way of allowing the prescient otherness of the animal to address the speaker’s interiority, her “melancholy,” with what I hope is a welcome and refreshing distance.  I was, of course, talking back in some ways, in homage, to the wonderful anonymous ballad “The Twa Corbies,” with its haunting final couplet:  “O’er his banes, when they are bare, / The wind shall blow for evermair.”  I liked the idea of turning the sadness stalking the ballad and my poem into a kind of beauty (“abacus of blood / and haloed headlamps”), a cause for awe.