I’m facing down an unwelcome assortment of fives and zeroes at the moment. This season marks my fifth year of being un-married, and I will turn 50 in the fall. So 05 and 50—neat, huh? Why do numbers that end in fives and zeroes always force one to take stock? (I just noticed that stock is a five-letter word with an 0 in the middle!) I hate to buy into the whole midlife-crisis hype, but I can’t stop thinking about where I am vs. where I was, where I want to be, should be, could be or might possibly be one day.
I recently tossed my collection of surviving-divorce books and have discovered that there is no manual for how to get through the phase I’m in now. The self-help books give you 3-5 years, max, to get it together and then you’re on your own. And most of the divorce memoirs follow a predictable script: distraught woman loses it completely, then rebuilds her life bit by bit. By the last chapter, she has found a richly rewarding new life and a new mate with whom she shares a deeper, more extraordinary love than she could ever have imagined possible (a midlife fairy tale—The Sleeping Divorcee!) She has also managed to publish a memoir, for f*ck’s sake.
In the divorce olympics, I am clearly not getting the gold. I’m a competitive person (did you know I won my 5th and 6th grade spelling bees?) so this does not sit well with me, especially as the forties are shoving me out the door. Fifty is actually not the new 37 or 43— just ask those decades.
And, lest I seem too Eeyore-ish, I do know that I have many, many things to be grateful for–amazing daughters, fabulous friends, Fresh Direct, a job with benefits (which entails editing publications that cover the numerous ghastly health problems that assault you upon turning 50. Just saying). Plus, it turns out I am kind of a little plucky. I’ve lived in a falling-apart house without completely falling apart. I’ve disposed of more than 30 dead mice and one dead car, dealt with two sewer-line back-ups without crying, and one burst pipe in my linen closet (with the kind of crying that scared my kids). I’ve done the dating thing, which is not for sissies. I’ve gone on approximately 16 first dates (god, no, have I really?), five of which resulted in second dates; two of those turned into brief relationships. (I’m currently less than optimistic on that front and pretty certain that my next great task is to make peace with being single for the rest of my remaining years. Fortunately, Netflix is really stepping up to the plate. And there’s always bridge.)
Not much more to say right now. I just felt like sending this little blog postcard while I stand here, slightly dazed, at the intersection of Half Century and New Decade.
Some of my favorite people from high school
I have been in total blast-from-the-past mode for the past couple of months. It started when I learned, via Facebook, that my high school was having its first official reunion, 30 years after our graduation day in May 1981. There was an “event” page and everything.
My initial reaction was that there was no way I would even contemplate attending such an event. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the very idea gave me hives. Not too long ago, in fact, in an attempt to eliminate clutter, I almost tossed my six yearbooks from The Birch Wathen School, which I attended from 7th through 12th grade–longer than any other school I’ve ever attended. The almost-tossing wasn’t because it was a particularly awful experience (certainly no worse than any other six-year chunk of my life, anyway), but because, for whatever reason, the yearbooks induced nothing in me except bemused detachment; they felt entirely dispensable. I’d spent the past few years processing my approximately 20 years with R and the stack of photo albums documenting our marriage and children and all that. High school? Completely off my radar.
But, slowly, as a result of the reunion’s FB event page, I reconnected with a few high school friends online and I began to wax nostalgic. I dragged out the yearbooks and flipped through them with newfound fascination–at the black-and-white pictures of people talking on pay phones, with dials, attached to the wall! Of me with my so-unfashionable-at-the-time curls tamed via vengeful blow dryer into something vaguely resembling the desired Farrah Fawcett hairdo! Of all the girls wearing our school’s required skirts, looking like the Orthodox Jewish women of today. Of the boys sporting resentfully-loosened ties and ill-fitting sports jackets. (All any of us wanted was to wear jeans to school. We got to during final exams and on “Grub Day,” a 50-cents-a-person fundraiser that occurred a few times a year.) Of me attached at the hip to my renegade, delightfully delinquent high school boyfriend, who is still, apparently, off the grid, with only seven FB friends and no photo, even. (Imagine!)
Then, last Saturday, my high school classmates and I finally reunited in person. I’ve stayed in touch with a handful, but most of them I had not seen since I was 17. I saw the guy with whom I went on my first date ever, as well as the friend who initially introduced me to R when they ended up as roommates after college. I saw another guy who impressed me with how much he has grown up in three decades. It was one big episode of Christina Frank: This is YOUR life. (The renegade did not make an appearance, which was mostly a relief, but sort of disappointing too.) The former girls, now women, were the best. The whole experience, was–for lack of a more old-school word–awesome (a word no one used in the 1970s, btw, certainly not for all things ordinary, as they do now. Nor would anyone have known wtf btw meant back then, fyi.)
I did not realize until I went off to college in the Midwest just how unusual my upbringing and high school experience were compared to that of most of the country. The Birch Wathen School was housed in a seven-story townhouse on the Upper East Side, across 71st Street from the Frick Museum. My graduating class consisted of 48 people. Our senior prom took place at The Plaza Hotel (yes, that one, where Eloise lived). Many of us grew up in sprawling apartments on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and their environs, with doormen and elevator men and handymen and–coincidentally or not–profoundly flawed, not-present parents. It was a strange combination of privilege and neglect that many (not all) of us knew, and it was comforting to again be in the presence of people who understood that very specific milieu during that very specific time. We hung out in Central Park. Our Huk-A-Poo shirts and Frye boots came from Bloomingdale’s. We bought our after-school candy (Swedish fish and Ice Cubes) at a store called Caviar-teria and thought nothing of it. In health class, we were warned about the dangers of Quaaludes and VD. It was the convergence of a certain slice of New York City at a certain time in history.
I didn’t even begin to comprehend the unusualness of how I grew up until I flew off to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, surrounded by girls named Millie and Muffy (really!) who belonged to sororities and dated frat boys. I was referred to as “the girl from New York” in my dorm, I guess because I wore black most of the time. (As one of my classmates said at the reunion: “WHY did our guidance counselor send me to Duke?? Why didn’t she know what she was doing? WHAT was she thinking? I was traumatized!”) Ultimately, I gravitated to those who passed for freaks at Northwestern and I love them still; for my junior year I transferred to SUNY Purchase, which felt like home again. Phew.
Reuniting with my Birch Wathen classmates was unexpectedly powerful. I felt like omg, those six years were the most formative years of my entire life–which is, I guess, what nostalgia will do to you. I saw most of those people almost every day for six years, after all–the years during which I morphed from unpopular, skinny, geeky, flat-chested girl to a prettier, curvier, more-confident one who had cool friends, a boyfriend, and who no longer cared what anyone thought of her.
I see now that The Birch Wathen Class of 1981 was a family of sorts, with assorted roles and personalities–the good, the bad and the ugly. It took me 30 years to understand the significance of that experience, but it was well worth it.
As year three–yes, three–of my separation looms, I sometimes ask myself: Why aren’t R& I back to being friends yet?
Shortly after we split, I confidently told myself, my kids and my mother that my relationship with R started as a friendship (1985-1989), then became romantic/marital (1989-2008) and was now back to being a friendship (2008-eternity). See? Nothing to it! Toss the wedding bands aside, and—boom—just like that we’re back to being friends again. It seemed like a positive way to spin it and a lovely idea, given that R and I never stopped fundamentally liking one another, even if the love part went awry.
But so far, the sweet post-marital friendship I envisioned hasn’t quite panned out; we’re not even Facebook friends. There was an unforeseen circumstance about which I’ll be terribly cryptic–but that notwithstanding, it’s all turned out to be more complicated than I could have imagined.
It’s not that I hate R, nor do I love him anymore. We’ve both moved on. He’s had the same girlfriend for three years; I had a boyfriend for over a year (that ended a couple of months ago, fyi–not a tragedy in itself, but more on that in a future blog post). What I’ve come to realize is that when you have kids and joint custody, the post-marital relationship is the real til-death-do-us-part one. It’s the arranged marriage after the voluntary one–and for me, it sometimes requires a lot more effort.
Almost every day, we email or talk on the phone—about summer plans for the girls, about whether the girls need new sneakers (probably, don’t they always?) or should have less screen time (yes, of course. Their brains are melting.) About this or that adorable/infuriating/worrisome/brilliant thing one of them did or said. (Oh, and did you send a check to afterschool? Because I didn’t.)
We work one block from one another and often meet at a mid-point to exchange something one of the girls left at his place and needs at mine. Then there’s the weekly transfer of stuff from one house to the other, the incessant stopping-by to get something someone forgot, which usually involves a little chat on the threshold of the house that used to contain the four of us.
R & I are pleasant and friendly enough during most of these exchanges–but I, for one, could use some space. I find it wearying and confusing to constantly be interacting with the man who made a big fuss about living separately. It makes for a chronic low-grade tension, a perpetual neither-here-nor-there-ness. Limbo personified. How do you really move on when your ex-spouse is in your face all the time? And yet, what choice is there? Who else is going to help me figure out summer camp? Who else shares the same ridiculous degree of pride in our daughters’ sparkling report cards? Who else is R going to depend on to host the girls’ birthday parties and fill the goody bags? Who else does either of us call when one of the kids is sick or when the help required can only come from the other parent? We still need each other, which is both comforting and claustrophobic.
I’m not sure what form a post-marital friendship should take, or if the very concept is pure oxymoron. Maybe friendLY is the best one can hope for. Can you really go back to holding–rather, shaking–hands once you’ve given birth in front of someone? The notion of remaining “perfect pals” with your ex, as the book The Good Divorce describes, is, frankly, kind of weird. We’ve all known ex-couples like this–who hang out and even vacation with each other and their new partners. What is that and why?
It’s hard to know where the boundaries are. When R&I are too chummy, I wonder why we’re not still together. On the occasions when he comes over–say for Christmas morning, or one of the kids’ birthdays, I sometimes think: “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we all live under the same roof and that way I’ll have another adult to help me cook dinner and fix stuff, buy milk on the way home and get the girls to bed?”
Conversely, it feels icky when I’m too angry or chilly towards him. When he’s looked clearly sad or stressed, I’ve even had the crazy impulse to give the guy a hug–but how do you hug that? You can’t.
It’s complicated, for better or for worse.
I always feel like The Prodigal Blogger when I go for weeks without posting–a little sheepish, like I have to acknowledge my absence. Which is sort of the point of this post—i.e., the inherent self-absorption in being human.
So. More about me: The last couple of weeks of blog neglect were due to my being paralyzed with fear. I had a routine mammogram in late February, and, for the first time ever, I got a call from the clinic telling me I had to come back for more images because of a suspicious “area of density.” So, naturally, I googled every possible combination of “abnormal,” “density,” “mammogram,” “common,” “percentage,” “of,” “ghastly,” and “death.” I learned that 10 percent of women who get routine mammograms are called back for repeats and that the vast majority of them turn out to be fine. And most of my friends have been through this and it was nothing.
But this was me, and I am really, really, realllllllly bad at this kind of thing. Worse than most people. When in doubt, I assume Murphy’s Law will prevail. When I was pregnant, I worried that my child would be an albino, if only because it’s so unlikely, because it’s one of the few things you’re not tested for, the thing no one would think to think of–so, ha!–I thought of it first. (The fact is, I have been handed stuff in my life, both good and bad, that is statistically very unlikely to happen to anyone, which may explain my glass-half-emptiness. But we shan’t go there.)
I’ve been quietly but very effectively freaking myself out, imagining hideous scenarios, superstitious that because people blithely told me they had the same thing happen and insisted that “Oh, it will be fine,” that guaranteed it wouldn’t be; that because I saw a “Support the Fight Against Breast Cancer” poster in the window of the post office, I was doomed. I was also assigned an article on breast cancer at work this week AND I learned that a colleague’s wife died of it. Signs, signs everywhere! And then, of course, why not me? People DO get the worst news possible, all the time. Entire countries are swept away in tsunamis, taking other women with “areas of density” with them. I’m sure everyone reading this has partaken of at least one appetizer from life’s misery menu, if not several entrees (and I certainly don’t mean to trivialize anyone else’s suffering by making light of my own hypochondriac tendencies; also, please excuse the overwrought menu metaphor).
I fretted that maybe my “area of density” was in fact a grumpy, pissed-off little knot of unresolved anger. That led me to the predictable bargaining and promising my personal Almighty (whom I bring out on these occasions) that I would forgive all–no, really, everything, especially the still-smarting fact of my children’s seemingly sitcom-worthy other life—one that could only have been custom-designed for me by a vengeful, unholy being. I promised I would abandon all negativity and never again say or even think “No fair!” if only, only, only the mammogram would turn out to be benign.
So, yeah, it was benign. In fact, when the radiologist said “It’s nothing. Come back in a year,” I sat there in disbelief, waiting for her to shut the door, assume a grave demeanor and level with me. But yes, this time, I was spared. This time. The high of the relief I felt on the way home was almost worth the agony I put myself through for the previous two weeks.
Now, the big challenge: To keep that promise to my personal Almighty.
Several of you have complained that I haven’t blogged in a while and you’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry! (How’s this for a lame excuse: I’ve been busy.) But I’m thrilled that any of you actually notice and care. That is hugely gratifying and encouraging, so don’t go anywhere. I actually have a lot of post ideas brewing and very soon I expect to unleash a torrent of fascinating, fully-formed posts.
In the meantime, how about helping me get my writerly juices flowing? Ask me something Living in Splitsville-related and I’ll put together a fun little blogger/reader Q&A.
Go ahead, ask!
Oh, and here’s a cartoon from this week’s New Yorker that seems appropriate. Enjoy.
Yeah, we're standing. Big deal.
Last night I lived another midlife cliche–that of the aging hipster who doesn’t realize just how aged she is until she revisits the kind of scene that in her younger days passed for fun times and she just doesn’t get it anymore.
I was at a night club (is that what they call them these days?) called the Mercury Lounge, where I went to see the band Urge Overkill. The guitarist/singer, Nash Kato, is a friend of mine from college and a very talented dude (not that I can use the word dude without sounding like an idiot, but that’s sort of the point here). I wanted to be supportive, but found that I needed to be supportED–like, physically.
It was a rainy Monday night at 10:30 pm–a time when I am usually asleep or catching up on Mad Men–and I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of equally middle-aged UO fans–most of them male, portly, and balding– in a hot, dark room, waiting for the band to take the stage.
After about five minutes of this insanity, I realized that I can no longer stand like I used to, especially while simultaneously clutching my raincoat, an umbrella and a plastic cup of mediocre white wine. I’m 47 and I need a chair, dammit! And a little table on which to place my vino. And a piece of fine stemware instead of a plastic cup.
The longer we stood there, the more outraged I became. How could anyone expect a mob of moist, aging hipsters to stand and stand and stand right next to each other like this? I kept looking around, thinking there has to be a chair somewhere. Someone must be getting the chairs right now–at least one of those folding soccer-mom chairs with the cup holder in the arm. Right?
Wrong. No chairs; not even a stool. But the standing became the least of it once the band started playing. UO has a lot of energy. They are very, very loud. The kind of loud where emergency ear plugs fashioned from a ripped-up Kleenex do no good because the whole room is throbbing and it’s not about your hearing as much as your entire circulatory system.
I flashed back to my college days, when a Saturday night required this kind of loudness and chaos and endless standing in order to qualify as fun. In fact, I recalled seeing the band Black Flag with Nash and finding the whole slam-dancing thing slightly barbaric. At my age, I guess standing is the new slam-dancing.
I also started to worry about the band members, who were all sweaty and red-faced. I was concerned that one of them might have a stroke.Then, after the show, I couldn’t stop telling my pal K (Nash’s girlfriend) how he’s such a great performer with a wonderful voice and that it’s a shame we couldn’t hear him because of all the noise, not to mention the standing. I told her to suggest that he reinvent himself as a soothing folk-singer type. He could play in quiet, classy little venues with tables and chairs and decent wine. Nothing wrong with that, is there?
Tell me you didn’t see this coming: I have a life coach–or, well, I spoke with one once for 90 minutes. I know, I know–such a midlife-makeover-ish thing to do, right? And I’m really too cynical and eye-rolley to participate in something as amorphous as life coachery—but then it’s amazing what a sudden, unexplained bout of poverty and singleness can drive one to (see: self-help books and online dating sites). Honestly, I’ve been a little restless ever since I landed a job. (For which I am grateful, btw. I’m almost starting to believe in god.) And a sweet, cute boyfriend. (No, really, god, I was kidding. Of course I believe in you.) And figured out how to get groceries delivered right to my door (possibly the ultimate accomplishment of the three, thanks to my good pal god).
Now it’s time to sort out my creative self, something I’ve been trying to do since I was 21, with intermittent success. I didn’t make my original deadline of writing something important, critically-acclaimed and noteworthy by age 30. Or 40. And now 50 is uncomfortably near (um, no thank you, god). Fifty. Fif.Tee.
So now what? In a way, I don’t care as much as I used to about achieving something significant in my lifetime. So what if I would rather watch Mad Men and read other people’s books than write one myself? Does the world really need another book? We’re all going to die anyway—agents, editors, writers, critics, even the PR and marketing people. So in the end, perhaps just having fun and blogging is an acceptable way to pass one’s free time. Right? Am I capable of not putting such pressure on myself? Can I once and for all dismiss my gnawing, constant sense of disappointment in me?
Apparently not, because I wrestle with these thoughts, oh, 500 times a day. Recently, I inflicted my inner conflict on my super-creative and much-younger new friend Laura, who instantly fixed me up with her life coach, Marcia. My expectations were high. Prior to speaking with Marcia, I felt an untrustworthy sense of well-being—as if simply contacting her was accomplishment enough and she would take it from there. I didn’t want her to help me be creative as much as I wanted her to be creative for me, maybe even to produce something on my behalf–more like a surrogate than a coach.
Our introductory chat was good, like a combination of therapy and school. She helped me think about what has worked/not worked for me in the past as far as unlocking my creative self. I shared my struggle over how much to reveal and whose feelings to protect or not in this blog or in any future, larger tell-all endeavors. But she kept bringing up this notion of a “goal,” which I found unsettling–because if I had a goal, would I need a coach (or simply a trophy)?
We’re scheduled to speak again in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to that. Until then, I’m supposed to read a few inspiring texts that Marcia recommended, plus I’m going to write down some of the blog thoughts that I’m reluctant to publish and see where that leads me.
I’ll keep you (goal) posted.
Since my last post on this topic, I’ve accumulated more proof that getting older and becoming curmudgeonly/peculiar are inextricably linked (but maybe the self-awareness is somewhat mitigating?) The latest evidence:
It’s been almost exactly two years since R moved out. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long–even though we middle-aged folks are constantly bemoaning the brisk passage of time. My goodness, wasn’t I just writing the post about surviving the first year? Where has the time gone?
Many of the (many) books I’ve turned to for guidance during this difficult period mention the two-year mark as a milestone. Apparently, if you’re the me in the scenario, by then you are officially back on your feet, successfully re-routed toward your glorious post-divorce future. I remember reading about it while still in my raw, skinless state and thinking I could not possibly survive two whole years. I hoped someone would hit the fast-forward button so I didn’t have to be awake for the duration. Or hit me with a bus.
And now suddenly I’m here, 24 months later. I am, in fact, re-routed and less raw, just like the books promised. Yet, oddly enough, I’m also feeling a little sentimental about that hellish phase, if only because it gave me an automatic excuse for being unable to cope with anything. Just like when you have a baby and chalk up the extra weight, the slovenly attire, the exhaustion, to the fact that, well, you just had a baby–until one day you wake up and notice that your kids are in elementary school and you can’t fall back on that anymore.
When I couldn’t handle certain household tasks (and I couldn’t), I forgave myself because, after all, I was a recently-separated, marginally-employed, suddenly-single mom. If my temper was too short with the girls (and it was) or I cried in the bathroom (and I did), well, wasn’t I off the hook, given that I was going through an awfully hard time? If I needed a reason to turn a man down for a second date (which I did), I played the confused newbie: “I’m sorry. I’m so new at this. I’m not ready. I think I started dating too soon. Maybe in a few months…”
Abigail Trafford aptly describes those years as Crazy Time in her book by the same name: “It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You can’t believe…how terrible you feel, how overwhelming daily tasks become, how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity.”
Now I’m so jaded that when I read other women’s divorce sagas, I think, “Oh, boo hoo, honey. Pick yourself up off the floor and get on with it. Pump the gas, kill the mice, fix the toilet, change the occasional light bulb, join the dating site. Because–guess what–you have no choice.”
But, as crappy as I felt during that stage, it also came with the thrill of the new and unknown. I had my work cut out for me, a fierce sense of purpose. Every day felt like a challenge, an occasion that required rising to, an endless loop of first-days-of-the-rest-of-my-life. It was often agonizing and exhausting, but there was so much intensity and drama, so much adrenalin. It was an adventure.
And now things have leveled off. I have a job; a guy. Much still remains unknown, unhealed and unclear–but Crazy Time has officially ended. It’s not exactly a let-down, it’s just so weirdly calm and orderly all of a sudden that I’m a little disoriented. I wonder what will be the source of my next adventure and what will provide meaning. Or maybe I should just embrace the stillness for a while.
(Note to the universe: I said adventure, not heartache. Meaning, not misery. Got that?)
This is not mine, btw.
This past weekend I decided to wear a bracelet that I haven’t worn in years. No big deal, really, except that the bracelet was from R, and for a long time I boycotted most of the jewelry he gave me in a misplaced, don’t-mention-the-war type attempt to protect myself from sentiment. (Plus, the books say that removing physical reminders of the spouse is necessary to heal and rebuild.)
The downside of my jewelry boycott (mancott?), though, is that I have been wearing the same wimpy handful of non-R-associated necklaces and earrings for two years now and I’m getting bored. About 80 percent of my jewelry collection was given to me by R, and,whatever one may or may not think about the man’s other facets (tee hee—get it, facets?), one can’t deny that he had excellent taste in baubles. In fact, it instilled in other females the kind of awe and envy that is usually reserved for that lone remarkable dad pushing his kid on a swing at the playground on a weekday morning.
My friends routinely expressed amazement. “R got you that? He picked it out himself? All by himself?” Then would come the sad stories of having to return–or, worse, keep–ill-chosen husbandly gifts of jewelry, or of having to actually accompany one’s husband to the store so as to avoid faking an “Oh, honey, I love it!” moment.
I never understood this stereotypical cluelessness among men, because it seems that if someone truly knows you, he also gets your style and sensibility. Right? It’s so simple. (The truth is that toward the end of our marriage, R’s jewelry prowess began to falter, and I ended up returning a pair of whimsical, but not wearable, antler-shaped earrings. Something was clearly amiss.)
At one point during those stormy pre-separation months, I weepily gathered every last bit of jewelry that R had ever given me into a tangly mass and chucked it into the wastepaper basket next to his dresser. Fortunately, a sliver of my rational brain was still functioning and knew I would regret that move. I dug it out and tossed it into a drawer instead.
And now that I’ve lifted the ban, it’s like I have all this new jewelry! There are a few key pieces that give me a pang, but it’s amazing how time has diluted most of the voodoo.
Once I found the bracelet, I started sifting through the other stuff. I even reluctantly opened the gray suede box that now serves as a tiny coffin for my wedding and engagement rings. I put the engagement ring—one of my favorite pieces of jewelry (and yes, R chose it all by himself)—on the ring finger of my right hand. Then I put it back in the box because that one’s still a little fraught, plus it seems wrong to wear a symbol of a marriage-to-be when the marriage is now a has-been. But IS there any real reason not to wear it, now that it’s not so much my engagement ring as just a pretty ring that happens to have been given to me during a prior engagement?
What do you think?