Archive for aging

On “Aging Badly”

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , on 11/23/2015 by Janet Fitch

I don’t normally click on tantalizing celebrity gossip presented by sites bearing the titles ‘BoredomRUs’ or ‘LookatME’, but I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and, recently having had a rather large birthday myself, I found myself entering a site portaled by a figure of a fleshy woman in a tiny red white and blue flag bikini. “Celebrities who have Aged Horribly.”

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know who has aged horribly, so much as wanting to see what time has done with figures familiar to me from younger times in my own life, as a gauge to my own process. Probably that’s why most people want to see things like this–not to think, egad! What a mess!  (Although maybe some people do, schadenfreudenly.)

Most, I think want to simply explore the question–how do we age?

The funny thing about this photo essay,  is that the celebrities in question haven’t aged horribly at all. They have simply aged.

Gotten fatter, or smiled less. Some caught without makeup. All three is the best–like Kristie Alley,  shown flipping off a photographer in her stout fifties.

And I realized what I was seeing here wasn’t ‘celebrities aging horribly’, it was celebrity culture’s terror of time, horror of being part of a natural process. This used to be called narcissistic terror, but even the term narcissistic has gone into a new phase–like ‘privacy’, for the opposite reason–narcissism having become invisible because near universal.

Oh, the narcissistic terror of the people who put this little slideshow together!  ‘My god, she’s not as cute as she was at 20!’ How could she let herself go like that?

I must admit, I got a good long laugh, scrolling through these before and after pictures, hearing myself say, “Yep, she got older.”  “Yeah, he put on weight.”  “Even a good-looking seventy year old looks like seventy without makeup.” Keith Richards?  I mean, the  man’s a poster-boy for the fully-lived life. Kate Moss? Wrinkles when she smiles! Brigitte Bardot??  Give the woman a break. Kittens become cats.

You can’t freeze yourself like an embryo, kids.  I hate to scare anyone, but this is what happens if you’re lucky enough to stick around. You change. But change is not an emergency, it is not a failure.

One sub-theme did emerge though, perhaps the opposite one intended by these terrified narcissists. The harder certain of these celebrities tried to surgically stave off the effects of time in the body–which is life itself, after all–the stranger and more grotesque they looked.

I never did see the chick in the red white and blue bikini, but she actually looked like she was having a good time.  Certainly better than the anorexic, anxious, age-shaming person who assembled this slideshow. When I was done scrolling, I felt surprisingly happy. ‘Aging Badly’ turns out to be just aging. You don’t have to fight it, you don’t have to do a thing about it. You want to feel good, keep calm and live your life. Nobody gets a  grade on this.

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A Night with Patti Smith

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 11/17/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t get enough of Patti Smith. Not since first seeing her in Portland Oregon in 1979, an artist I’d never heard of, but the ticket was $2, so why not? She took the stage, in an old theater–this skinny… boy? girl? in white shirt and necktie. She began, in a voice that was both gravelly and breathy, very very slowly: Jesus died… for Somebody’s sins… BUT– NOT –MINE! she screamed.  The audience went nuts. I went nuts.  My sins, they belong to me…. And then launched into the rock standard GLORIA–with the sexes remaining unchanged.  It was permanently mind-blowing.  My mind is still blown.  Like someone whacking the top of my head with a board.  Ever since, I’ve craved more–the music, the poetry,  the preacher-like gestures with those sensitive, little-tipped fingers–rising, hushing, reaching out. The power of her voice, her control of it, belting, murmuring. The rhythmic skeins of language–chants and incantations, true bardic rapture.  Her unabashed joy in art and in the things of the world, her sense of outrage, her sheer energy.

I have seen her turn gray, and sweeten with the years, a real surprise. Then her book, Just Kids, was published. It absolutely charmed me, a gorgeous recollection of how artists are made, that’s what got me about it, what commitment to art looks like,  the attitude of wonder and openness and goofiness and non-judgement–here’s my review of it on goodreads if you’re interested: Just Kids

A new book has now hit the bookstores, M Train, a dreamy memoir, and to celebrate, she came to LA and spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library Aloud series last night, in conversation with the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Of course I dumped everything to be there. I’d drive 100 miles just to hear how her mind works.  It’s so inspiring to see an artist who considers herself an artist. Who still has a creative vision as fresh as it had always been, whose layers of wisdom and experience manage not to rob her of her artistic vitality, her openness to the world–something I treasure more and more the older I get. How cheerful she is, unpretentious and direct, without any pose– unless naturalness itself is a pose, and if it is, it’s the best one to have.

The book sprang from a dream. She allowed one association to suggest the next, uninterrupted, and then explained that she edited it down and inserted small title heads so readers can rest and orient themselves, little ‘stations’ on the mental train… – Lots of pieces from her travels, photographs… I look forward to just spending time again inside her mind–that quick, broad, childlike, unjudgemental, alert, appreciative space.

Here are some notes from the evening I managed to jot down in the dark.

I learned that she works simultaneously on a number of books at once. “This was the first one to cross the finish line,” she joked.  She jokes a lot–I love the way she  takes her work very seriously, but not herself.  She spoke about her sense of responsibility to the reader, to the audience–“There was such responsibility in Just Kids–to chronology, and the people and the times.” To get it right. Where the new book is more a meditation, a dreamlike work.  She enjoyed writing M Train because it works associationally–didn’t have to be as responsible to truth and people in the outside world.

I liked hearing her talk about the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. She was talking about   a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse and her death, which became a lyric to a song,  “This is the Girl.” She’d written it, and then her bass player shared a piece of music he’d written, and she realized that her poem would fit it perfectly. But the difference: “There’s a responsibility with a lyric, to others.” With a lyric, you have to think about the audience being able to understand you, follow you, it also has to not  violate the mood of the music.  “But with a poem, the responsibility is to the poem itself.  There are a lot of different sensations encoded in poetic language. Your blinders are on this way”–she held her hands up in front of her eyes–“in, towards the work.” The poet’s task is not to explain or make clear to the outside world, but to speak to the work, to deepen within the poem, a very intimate thing.

A lot of her musical work is improvised, a process that fascinates me, part of that shamanic element of her poetry. It often starts with a riff from the musicians, like  in Radio Ethiopia, or that incredible run in Birdland, about Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, one of my all-time favorites. The musician starts, and then she mprovises language out of that, around that, a real bardic trance.

Great questions from the audience. Here were a few of them:

An audience member, an actor and writer, asked her about how to find/define success.  She said, “My definition of success is doing something really good. That you can read again and know it’s good. even if it doesnt get published or anything, even if nobody else sees it, I’ll read it and go, man, that was good!”    Not numbers or sales or followers, image etc. Just to do good work. “How it transformed other people, that’s another way.” Its contribution to the conversation.   And simply accepting that she’s an artist who does work across genres–“I always wanted to be Joan Mitchell. I saw her sitting in front of a big canvas in a film once, and she’s smoking and she said, ‘I’m a painter. That’s what I do.'”  But Smith’s been a poet, writer, musician, performer, mother, wife, all of those creative parts.

There were lots of references to films and other poets and writers. She lives in a cultural world, everything from Funny Face–‘that’s who I wanted to be, Audrey Hepburn in her little beatnik pants, working in a bookstore.’ to Rimbaud, Nina Simone, Blake,  Moby Dick–“I read it when I was about 13–but I skipped the whaling chapter.  I was a good reader but I’m a girl, and I skipped the whaling.”

About gender: “I staked the right not to have to be fettered by gender.”

One audience member asked her what she would recommend for reading material for juvenile offenders who are looking at long sentences. She said, “Who’s to say.  Depends on their reading level. With one you could give them the Glass Bead Game, with another it’s comic books.  The one thing that can’t be incarcerated is your imagination.  Genet was in jail at 14, and read Proust. It changed his life.  Who’s to say that a little thug like that shouldn’t read Proust. I think we should widen the choices of prison libraries.”

On the subject of responsibility, an audience member asked about writing non-fiction, ‘what if you’re writing about someone very close to you, who would be hurt…’ a question frequently asked of memoir writers.  Smith surprised us by saying that you have a responsibility to the living breathing people around you… that in Just Kids–full of real people. She felt a responsibility not to hurt anybody, even the ones who–she didn’t even say hurt her, she looked for a kind way to say it ‘weren’t that careful with me.’ “Books last a long time.  I think you should be careful with people in print. It’s up to you, but that’s what I did.”

“I’m not afraid to look uncool.” What I like best about Patti Smith is her absolute lack of cynicism, of irony, of beentheredonethat.  Her direct apprehension of reality, her mixture of air and earth–her emergence as the quintessential American artist. I left there inspired in about nine different ways. THIS is how to be an artist. THIS is how to age–joyfully.

This Hand, on this Wrist Affixed

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 03/06/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Hand

This hand, on this wrist affixed, will remain until the end.

This hand, that held the first pen, rudely fisted, crabbed with the unnatural gesture of those early A’s and B’s, over the sample characters with arrows illustrating the proper direction, Aa, Bb, blue-lined sheets in landscape-format, triple-ruled for the edification of the beginner, paper so cheap the splinters lay embedded like flags. This very hand once struggling to ape those shapes.

This hand, that marveled at the lines of early corduroy, that touched a rosepetal for the first time, astonished at the velvet plush. These fingertips that traced Grandma’s face, that sneakily examined the satin cummerbund of Mommy’s cocktail gown. That cut Mary Jane’s hair with scissors as long as my forearm. Mischievous hands, sensitive, sensual, they stroked the silk edges of all my blankets into shreds. This thumb, that I sucked well beyond the age of cuteness. How many stuffed animals has it fondled to threadbare cloth, gloried in the the doily edges of cut-lace collars topping how many velvet party dresses? Ripe with the beloved scent of horse sweat and sweaty saddle-leather, intelligent with the mysterious grip of double Pelham reins looped between the fingers just so.

This hand. Its lines of fate have changed over the years, like rivers rerouting through flat countryside, although the fingertip whorls of identity remain forever fixed. Still small, child-small, but now boasting weathered backs dotted with freckles. The nails far cleaner than they ever were, but still short, unpolished, the facets of time marking them like ’80s disco glass.

A fortune teller reading my palm at a party once identified me as a writer. Did she actually read the lines, I wonder, or spot the bend in the index finger, the unmistakable cant, the way a pen will alter the hand that holds it after years of hard service, that bend, with the corresponding slight callous on the opposing second finger, where all those pens have rested. My profession written there.

The hand that laid out a thousand hands of tarot, hungry for future. That wrapped around monkey bars and men alike. Backpack straps and suitcase handles, letters of acceptance and rejection, mailboxes full and empty, receivers of telephones bearing great and bad news. That touched the beloved hands of lovers, friends, parents, children.

Ah, her little hand in mine. Clung often to just one finger.

The hand also slammed a thousand doors, gave people the finger, flashed the peace sign, hitchhiked, indicated the door with a thumb. Held innumerable glasses while conversations glowed in long evenings, burnished and bright, gesturing extravagantly. Shook hands with the great and the forgettable, a few treasured beyond all–hands that also held pens, that also spilled ink.

The oceans of ink these hands have poured. The pages they have turned in a half-century’s Alexandria of books.

Hands shoved in pockets so they wouldn’t betray me. Pointed and clung, twirled two ropes in cadence, double-dutch, and played those intricate schoolgirl clapping games, “A sailor went to sea sea sea…” The hand that fed this body, all these years. How many spoons, and forks and knives? One spoon in particular, a silver baby spoon incised with birds, which I still use for sugar, the pleasure of wrapping my hand around it one more time. The windows it opened and closed, their mechanical variety of cranks and latches and levers. The zippers and buttons it has worked. The ten thousand meals it cooked. Peeled and sliced and chopped and stirred. Lit a city of birthday candles.

That finger, there, third finger left, for two decades wore a wedding ring–oak leaves and acorns. Its trace still visible. Like a freed slave’s cofflemark. And in an additional adornment to the slight rightward bend in the right forefinger, a flag of skin, where I sliced it open cutting a galley of type in a newspaper’s production room, when I was trying to be a writer.

This hand that caressed a lifetime of lovers, that held my only child, that made her laugh, tapping the tip of her nose. So many diapers. Now it caresses a late-life love, smooths his hair, unkinks a shoulder.

I love to think of just the warm sand that it has sifted through its fingers, like silk, like time, flowing.

As I grow old, so will these hands. They were there for everything. They drove the first car, a monstrous insect-green Fury III owned by Fairfax High’s Driver Ed, which stalled between two blind curves on Laurel Canyon. They’ll drive the last car too, whatever and whenever that will be.

To think alone of the alarms they’ve set, and silenced.

This hand, this very one, will see me through my last illness. This hand. When this life drains out of me, it will still be there, even then, this hand at the end of my arm. At the edge of the blanket, folded across my breast like a stilled wing. Someone will cover this hand with tears–my lover, my child? It will be buried with me, it will lie under the earth with me, just there. It gives me comfort, somehow, to know I won’t be alone.

Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: EAR

Pussycat Pussycat, I Love You…

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 12/30/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Razor

Hank Seidel lathered up his face. He shaved with a straight razor, a source of pride, his hand still steady enough at 78. It was his zeide’s razor, Moisei Seidel. In Poland, they were all bearded, but when Moisei came to America, he shaved it off. Americans shaved. America saved Moisei’s life. So he learned to shave his face like an American. He might not have been able to rub two English words together, but shave he did.

The cat sat on the sink watching him. Its sable coat, its yellow-green eyes. Sadie and her cats. Sadie Katz, he called her. She used to have a whole genealogy of white cats–oy, the white hair all over his suits every morning. The one with the green eye and the blue eye, who broke all her crystal, getting up in the cabinet. But finally the last of them died out, he thought he’d get a rest. Then she started with the Burmese. Their daughter in law gave it to her. Sweet girl but another cat he could have done without.

“Mrrow,” said the cat.

“Mrow to you too,” said Hank.

He remembered how Sadie used to carry the cat around, and sing to it. “Hank listen, he’s singing.” Pussycat pussycat I love you, yes I do…

And he’d be damned if the little momser didn’t sing along. Mrrrow, mrrow mrrow. The funniest thing he’d ever seen.

Burma Shave, that’s what she called it.

The cat watched him, solemnly, like he was studying for his barber exam.

Hank stropped the razor, tested the edge and began to shave, up under his chin, then the sides of his face, and his moustache. She always liked a good close shave, his Sadie Katz. She was a redhead, had that redhead’s tender skin.

He looked in the mirror, his dark face with the boxer’s chin, the boxer’s broken nose. Broken in a smoker back in Boston. This face. The dimple in the chin made it a hard face to shave. She liked to put her finger right there.

He began to run the blade up under his chin. Sadie, Sadie, where did you go? He could cut his throat in one quick flash of the blade. It was what he liked about shaving with his father’s razor, his grandfather’s. It was the secret that none of them had ever spoken about. Silent men, all of them. That every morning, he held the possibility of death in his hand. Every morning, he decided his own fate. Rick wouldn’t understand that–his son, the professor. He wouldn’t understand how important it was for a man to have a choice. You had a choice, you could decide not to.

The cat walked delicately along the back of the sink, jumped up to the top of the side cabinet, so they were at eye level. He got the strangest sensation that Sadie was watching him through that little cat’s eyes.

“So Burma Shave, what’s new, pussy cat?”

How intently it watched him. It reached out a paw, and tried to touch him.

He grasped the little paw.

“I’m okay, honey.” He picked the cat up, and wrapped it loosely around his neck, It hung there, boneless. And he began to sing, finishing his shave. He had a lousy voice, but managed to get the words out. “Pussycat pussycat I love you…

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: MIRROR