Posted on April 23, 2015 at 6:00 am
So I’m beginning to realize that I am not much different than who I was at eleven years old. I was dreamy, impatient, outdoorsy but unathletic, super sensitive, and full of questions about the world. I read a lot of Judy Blume back then. At the time, she was the only writer telling the truth about what it was like to approach adolescence and all the terrifying, exhilarating changes that come with it. From Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret I learned about periods, parties where there might be kissing, and the most efficient way to put on a bra. From Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, I learned about what the boys were going through—an embarrassing but fascinating confessional of voyeurism, shoplifting, and untimely erections. And from the grubby pages of the copy of Forever circulating my seventh grade homeroom, I learned about stuff too overwhelming for my innocent, Star Wars obsessed brain to even contemplate.
There is no Judy Blume for the changes I’m approaching now. As if referencing Judy Blume doesn’t already date me significantly, let me just announce here that I am a woman of a certain age. And it bites. It’s not like I wasn’t warned—I remember 11-year-old me staring at a teacher’s jiggling backside in mesmerized horror as she wrote on the chalkboard. “I’ll never get like that,” I assured myself with all the cockiness of a clueless pubescent. “That won’t happen to me,” I now try to convince myself when I notice things like sagging jawlines or watch helplessly as beloved family members face serious health issues. But of course it’s already happening. We all, if we’re lucky, get older. No amount of immaturity or denial really stops the clock, and while I’m not exactly the big “M” word yet, I know it’s coming, along with all of the cultural and emotional baggage that goes with it.
What’s interesting is that when I harness all of my powers of librarianship to look for perimenopause (the four to five years leading up to menopause) and menopause books, nothing seems to fit. Of course there’s Christiane Northrup’s massive white tome, Menopause, and the work of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, but they’re not quite what I’m looking for. Unlike 11-year-old me who looked to previous generations to explain and keep me company alongside the changes I was going through, now I need to hear the voices of my own generation. I need something honest, edgy, hilarious, and ultimately hopeful. Nothing euphemistic or with a big flower on the cover is gonna cut it. So here it is: Gen X needs to get with the program and write some damn books on getting older. I’m talking to you Molly Ringwald, Brooke Shields, and Bust editor Debbie Stoller. The three of you already write, so it’s time to spill, sisters. Sleater-Kinney and Tori Amos, I know you ladies will have something good to say. In the meantime, here is a start to my own personal “Oh Sh*t, It’s Menopause” library:
An actress and comedian, Gurwitch delivers essays ranging from approaching one’s “Eileen Fisher” years—where suddenly monochromatic, loosely-draped and impressively-priced designer wear starts looking better and better as it hides all kinds of age-related body issues—to a deeply moving piece on helping a friend with pancreatic cancer die with dignity. She shifts effortlessly between the superficial and the profound with witty, unflinching grace. As other reviewers have noted, she is aware that although she might not be ridiculously rich, she lives the affluent life of the “Hollywood-adjacent.” For a reader it’s sometimes distracting, all this talk of expensive creams and pricey handbags. But when she’s not talking about the consumerist side of midlife, and instead focusing on the deeply funny and mortifying things that start to happen to you and ridiculous things people say just because of your age, she’s quite good.
It turns out Roz Chast, born in 1954, isn’t actually Gen X but I assumed she was because her squiggly-lined, vaguely anxious comics seemed to hit the public eye right around the time Bright Lights, Big City (one of the first big Gen X novels) was published. It’s no matter; Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is fantastic—truthful, horrifying, and gallows-humor funny. This graphic memoir relates how Chast’s parents, both in their 90s, start to go downhill fast and how she, as their only child, has to step into the parental role and deal with uncomfortable realities ranging from bowel incontinence to her mother’s bewildered rage. Chast deftly explores her family’s dynamic and how lifetime habits of denial and avoidance are no help when stuff starts to get all too real. She spares no one, not even herself, as she depicts how each family member faces the “new normal.” There is little relief here but a lot of hard-won, shared experience.
I really kind of hate the title, even though it’s a reference to not only Jane Eyre but Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s excellent feminist lit criticism manifesto, The Madwoman in the Attic. But title aside, this book speaks to me. Right out of the gate, novelist Loh shares how she imploded her life at the age of 49 by having an affair. Her words are humbling and not at all self-congratulatory, but she manages to find or invent humor in everything from the stupidity of her actions to how the affair was just the beginning of a year of unforeseen chaos: physically, emotionally, spiritually and professionally. She describes fits of raging weeping and weepy raging, along with her attempts to find solace in books about “the change” (much as I’m struggling to do). Slowly, she cobbles together a loose philosophy of forbearance and remembers we’re all kind of in it together. Loh’s writing is top-notch—crisply lyric, unflinching and true. She revels in irony and absurdity, finding underneath it all what it means to be human, in the middle of one’s life, in the 21st century. It’s quite good and right now my favorite among the “midlife confidentials.”