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Our Bodies, Ourselves. Not.

Because I’m fifty-three and recently released a book of personal essays, lately I’ve been interviewed by a lot of baby boomers with websites or book blogs. As a result, here is something that has struck me since I’ve visited more and more of these sites. An inordinate amount of boomer bloggers lead off in their “About Me” sections with words to this effect: “I am a menopausal woman…”

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but wonder why on earth would that particular fact be something you bother to share with the general public, let alone use as a hook in your website profile? Yes, I believe menopause and perimenopause and any other stage of menopause that might exist merits real attention, in the form of health news or medical research or, in my case, a race to find a cure for increasingly toxic levels of irritability at all the poor innocents who simply occupy space when I’m in a black mood.

But seriously. If you are a book blogger, for example, do you really want the first thing your fellow bibliophiles learn about you to be that you are no longer menstruating? What does that really say about your personality? What’s more, what does that have to do with your preference for genre or literary fiction?

Once I became attuned to how frequently the menopausal modifier appears on boomer blogs, I couldn’t help but notice how something similar also occurs in casual conversation, not just among my friends, but total strangers, as well. I swear, if I had a nickle for every time a fifty-something woman—most recently the new teller at my bank—brings up hot flashes for no apparent reason, I’m sure I could afford a facelift by now.

Making this phenomenon seem even more peculiar is that, for most of our lives, our gender hasn’t made a habit of defining ourselves in terms of our reproductive abilities. You don’t hear fifth-grade girls introducing themselves around the camp fire circle—“I’m a prepubescent eleven-year-old…” You don’t see young women write on their Facebook walls—I’m twenty-four years old and at the peak of my fertility… So why now, in middle age when we have a wealth of life experience and self awareness to draw from, do so many of us default to menopausal?

I have taught creative writing to adults for over fifteen years, and one of the first lessons I stress is the importance of details to characterize effectively. But not just any details will do. If you introduce your narrator “Jane” as a middle-aged blonde, for instance, you’ve already doomed her as nondescript. On the other hand, if you lead with the fact that she is a true believer in miracles, or that she cracks up at the corny way actors deliver dialogue in old movies, or that she has sewn her own cloths since she was a teenager, now that’s revealing something much more memorable and meaningful about the essence of Jane’s character.Right now you may be thinking, So what if a woman chooses to describe herself as menopausal. A blog isn’t a writing contest, after all. And besides, a woman should be able to share anything she wants about herself, on a website or at the local bank.  But on the other hand, so many women our age complain about how we are summarily dismissed by the public at large. “It’s as if we’re invisible,” we whine. “No one pays attention to us any more, or sees us as attractive now that we’re no longer young.”

This is why I would argue that perhaps some of the reason for this invisibility is how quick we are to define ourselves in terms of our post-fertility, and its accompanying assortment of symptoms. To make this one of the first things we share, or drop into casual conversation, can’t help but suggest we see ourselves first and foremost as how we ovulate…or not. I mean let’s face it. If I were to lead with, “Hi, my name is Joni and I experience night sweats,” that isn’t exactly an invitation to see me as a hot ticket or engaging conversationalist.

Conversely, if you or I or any woman in her forties, fifties, sixties or beyond were to introduce herself as a true believer in miracles, or someone who laughs at corny dialogue, or a woman with the wherewithal to sew her own cloths, who wouldn’t sit up and take notice? Who wouldn’t want to get to know us better? Indeed, who wouldn’t find us attractive, given that real beauty comes not from our ability to produce eggs, but from our essence—those significant traits that deeply define us, regardless of our age or hot flashes.


Truth or Beauty? (How About A Little of Both)

The other day I was jogging down the road carrying a tub of cottage cheese. Let me explain. That morning I had told my husband I’d make lasagna, but we didn’t have this essential ingredient. I also was determined to go jogging, so to save time in what promised to be a busy day, my hubby drove me to the store on his way to work, I bought the cottage cheese, and carried it with me as I ran the three miles home.

As you can imagine, jogging while holding a 24-ounce plastic container is inconvenient, so this undermined all those endorphins I was trying to release. Like I’m not carrying enough cottage cheese already, I thought, envisioning my thighs. For about a millisecond, I was amused by my self-deprecating wit, that is until I realized I’d touched on a deeper issue than subcutaneous fat.

Why did I so easily—automatically—think about my body in derogatory terms?Here I was exercising for goodness sakes, making fitness a priority, and multitasking to boot, though this last virtue is beside the point. I should have been thinking good things about my thighs, or better yet not thinking about my thighs at all, given there is the debt crisis and other dire issues to resolve. Yet even in maturity, even when I should be enjoying a more informed, enlightened body image, I still hone in on my imperfections.

Why is this so? What forces have programmed me to measure my looks against ridiculous, downright impossible standards of beauty?

The answer—no surprise, no surprise—is advertising. By now, who doesn’t know that the fashion models pictured in ads are Photo-Shopped to such a degree that if an alien was to browse a women’s magazine, it would most likely conclude that human females are on the verge of extinction through starvation, and that our complexions are molded from an acrylic resin. Still, I was shocked, shocked, when I read about the latest travesty from L’Oreal, owners of the Lancôme and Maybelline brands.

Recently, an advertising watchdog group in the United Kingdombanned a L’Oreal print ad for being overly retouched. The ad was for its anti-aging foundation called The Eraser, and featured supermodel Christy Turlington, whom I suspect has her own issues with self image, given her quote in the Huffington Post (via a Vogue interview), “… I kind of figured, if Vogue thinks that I look OK, I probably look OK.”

Just okay?!! Christy, get real.

L’OrealUKadmitted doctoring Turlington’s image in the advertisement, explaining that the photo had been “digitally retouched to lighten the skin, clean up makeup, reduce dark shadows and shading around the eyes, smooth the lips and darken the brows.” But the company countered its mea culpa by adding that they still believed the image “accurately illustrated” achievable results. I can only imagine how much of The Eraser the L’Oreal spokeswoman must have been wearing to pull off that flabbergaster with a straight face.

I’m glad that a watchdog group nailed L’Oreal. I say this even though I enthusiastically endorse the very product in question, having used The Eraser for over a year. I also understand why make-up companies need their models to look good, or in advertising parlance, why they justify these images as “aspirational pictures.” But still, why not show an unretouched Turlington wearing The Eraser after a night of hard partying, or in a mall dressing room under fluorescent lights. Now those photos would allow for both beauty and truth in advertising. Just as importantly, they might help me, and likely millions of other women like me, improve the image we have not only of ourselves, but of the makeup companies that want our business so desperately, they are obviously willing to assert bald-faced lies.


It’s the Little Things

A few nights ago my husband Steve hammered a mouse to death. He’d been watching a movie in the living room when our cat deposited the mortally wounded creature next to his recliner.

“What was all that pounding,” I asked when he came upstairs to wash his hands. Characteristic of a lot of evenings after nine, I was in bed reading a book. Steve described how it all went down. The mouse lay curled on its side next to his chair, its breathing labored. A bead of blood oozed from its tiny jugular. He knew the little creature was done for so he picked it up, put it in a brown paper bag, retrieved the hammer from his tool closet, and…

“Stop!” I waved my hands wildly in the air.

After Steve had put the mouse out of its misery, he took the paper bag outside and tossed the corpse into the wooded lot that edges our backyard. He calls this the “aerial burial,” a last rite he performs for an assortment of pocket pets, aquarium fish, and rodents that die in our house or on our property.

Steve dried his hands, then went back downstairs to finish his movie. I tried to return to my book, but felt too distracted. In my mind’s eye, I could see all too clearly the poor little suffering creature. What I couldn’t see, however, was me being the one to actually touch it or pick it up and, well, you know the rest of the story. This got me thinking about the division of labor in our household. According to our daughters, ages twelve and fourteen, “Daddy does everything.” That’s their single-minded opinion, and it is always refreshing when the girls agree on something. But how far was their perspective from the truth?

I have to admit; Steve takes on more than his share of domestic duties. He vacuums and washes the dishes. He does the mother lode (no pun intended) of grocery shopping and meal preparation. “I like to cook,” he reassures me, when guilt prompts me to offer to do more. He makes the bed every morning and feeds the pets I insisted on adopting. More often than not, Steve is also the one who removes the wadded clumps of yellow or brown hair from the shower drain, this despite the fact that his own hair is salt and pepper in color, and clipped short.

Several of my girlfriends familiar with our household have remarked more than once, “You’re really lucky to have Steve.” I register this comment in the appreciative way it is intended, though sometimes the remark taps into a broader, more irksome attitude, that any domestic duty a man does beyond grilling steaks should qualify him for the Husband Hall of Fame.

But then there are all the other things Steve does to make our house not just a home, but habitable. These are the duties I put in the category of “man-jobs,” such as hauling our discarded furniture or other heavy junk to the dump; snow-blowing the walkways when the temperature is fifteen below; and doing whatever it is you’re supposed to do to prevent our leach field from flooding. I realize that calling this type of work “man-jobs” exposes me as both a hypocrite and a lousy feminist. But the truth is, I wouldn’t be physically strong enough, or have a clue, or have the stomach to do a lot of these things.

Sometimes it worries me, this reality that I am considerably dependent on my husband, especially as I get older; as we get older. But that night as I lay in bed too distracted to read, thinking about all the things that Steve does for our household, it wasn’t a feeling of worry that washed over me. My husband had just hammered a mouse to death. He did it because he is kind-hearted and because he just does these things, though I doubt this particular task was any more palatable for him than it would have been for me. Steve put a dying mouse out of his misery, I thought, experiencing a rush of emotion, and if a husband will do that for his wife, well that doesn’t just make her feel lucky to have him, that also makes her feel loved.


Interviews and Articles

Links to Joni’s latest online and broadcast interviews

Bad Walls Make Good Neighbors

A few months ago, part of the long slate wall in front of our house collapsed. Ours is a brown cape that sits high along a busy route bisecting our Vermont town. The masonry is such a prominent feature that folks are inclined to describe our property this way: “Oh, that’s the place with all those stone walls.” Either that, or, “Oh, you live in old Judge O’Boyle’s place.” Mind you, old Judge O’Boyle died in 1992, and my husband and I bought the house over fifteen years ago, but such is the pace in which New Englanders warm up to flatlanders.

The day after our wall imploded, I was at home writing. Suddenly, my little dog leapt from his fleece pillow and started barking fiercely, signaling a stranger on the property. I peeked out a window. A mud-splattered pick-up truck sat in our driveway. From it emerged a giant of a man wearing dungarees, a muscle shirt, and facial hair to rival Blackbeard’s. He disappeared from my line of vision as he approached our front door. When you are a woman home alone in a situation like this, stereotypes can’t help but kick in, and two thoughts flashed through my mind: serial killer… or Vermonter.

Before I even had time to fully envision my dismemberment, the man returned to his truck and drove away. Later, when I ventured out of the house, I discovered a hand-scrawled note tucked in the door. I can fix your wall, it read, and was signed, Snake’s Diversified Services. Oh, I realized, Blackbeard, or rather Snake, was simply making a business call.

The next day another unfamiliar truck pulled into our driveway, this time followed by a knock on the door. Once again the dog barked fiercely, but I remained calm, given I could infer the purpose of this visit. There on the other side of the screen door stood a thirty-something man wearing clean khakis and nice biceps under his pressed work shirt. He introduced himself as a landscape architect, and asked if I was looking for someone to rebuild our stone wall.

“Sure,” I smiled. We talked for awhile, and though I’d never been curious about masonry before, I found myself absorbed in the art of good stonework, and how to avoid something called “tracing,” and the particular challenges of building with slate. “Can you give me an estimate?” I asked, and after closer inspection of our wall’s damage, the landscape architect returned with a figure: “Six-thousand dollars.” Suddenly, I felt nostalgic for Snake, whom I assumed worked a good bit cheaper, given he clearly didn’t invest much in business attire.

Over the next several weeks, more pick-up trucks, plus the odd car or two, dropped by our house. In Vermont, you hardly need a license, or even credentials, to fix a stone wall, so I enjoyed a variety of visitors. Snake came by again, and this time I caught him before he slipped away. A neighbor whom I’d never met before also popped over to offer assistance, as did a boy from my daughter’s high school, and a tiny grizzled man accompanied by his tiny grizzled wife. This last fellow spoke in a manner that befuddled me, until his wife explained that he was deaf, and had a cochlear implant. I invited the two of them to sit a spell on our porch swing, and we were still chatting about the odd jobs they do for people around town, when my husband Steve pulled into the driveway.

“I know you’re a man just home from work,” the deaf man shook Steve’s hand, while repeating his offer to fix the wall, “so I won’t take any more of your time.”

As I write this, about four months have passed since the collapse of our stone wall. The fallen slate remains a lopsided heap by the side of the road. Likely, if old Judge O’Boyle still lived at our (his) place, that wall would have been fixed without any undue deliberation. But Steve and I tend to procrastinate when it comes to home repairs, and six-thousand dollars doesn’t grow on maple trees. There’s that, of course, and then there’s the fact that I’ve grown to enjoy my unexpected company. Working at home all day, it can get lonely with only a dog for company. Plus, how often does someone like me—a writer and a flatlander, to boot—have the good fortune to get to know a distant neighbor, or an odd-jobs couple, or someone with a name like Snake?




My Social Network, Such as It Is

In the summer before tenth grade I hosted my first real party, the memory of which still evokes the impulse to hide behind the planks of my formerly mousy brown hair in an effort to become invisible.

By a real party I’m not talking about the birthday parties I used to have as a younger kid, where I and my two best friends (one of whom I didn’t really like) were driven to the indoor roller rink or bowling alley by my dad. Afterwards, we’d come back to my house for a sleepover, where I tried to make my friends stay up all night with me. Inevitably, my efforts failed, as did our attempts to levitate each other using just two fingers.

By a real party, I’m talking about one in which the guest list (girls and boys!) extended far beyond my tiny social circle. With a gumption that far exceeded my comfort level, I sent out at least thirty invitations. But as the weeks before the “Splash Bash” (Water balloons! Squirt guns! ) dwindled, so did the number of attendees.

Some of the kids’ excuses might have been legitimate (family vacations, summer jobs), but I didn’t buy any of them. And then there was Garry Norman, one of the more popular boys, who told me that maybe he’d be at the party…or maybe not.

In the end, about ten people came to my Splash Bash, enough so the party wasn’t a complete bust. Still, I’ll never forget the humiliation of all those unopened bags of hamburger rolls my mom had to make room for in our freezer.

Fast forward several decades. Now when I host a party, I know enough to limit the guest list to close friends. And if one of them gives me a wishy-washy RSVP (“I’ll try to make it, but my daughter has soccer that day”), I silently blacklist them from future gatherings.

All this to say, I thought I had devised the perfect social stratagem to prevent any repeats of my teenage humiliation. That is until this year, when I entered the Age of Social Media.

As an author, specifically an author with a forthcoming book that is probably my last chance to avoid spending my golden years writing copy for automotive catalogs, I have been told that I need to get out there. I need to be on Facebook, not just as a regular human being, but with a separate Author Facebook Page. I need to be on LinkedIn and Twitter. I need to blog!

And so, with the same gumption I once mustered in addressing those thirty envelopes, I spend chunks of my days tweeting like a caffeinated canary. I post author updates smacking of shameless self promotion (Hey readers, pre-order my book and make my day!!!). And I blog, not just for myself, but as a guest on other writers’ websites.

Yet for all my tweeting, my followers number in the paltry digits. This compared to, say, @TheMime, with over twenty-thousand devotees. (Who the hell likes mimes?!) My Author Facebook Page doesn’t have enough fans to fill a church basement supper. And worst of all, the utter pits, is that most of my blog posts—entries that I actually try to make smart and funny and not just about my adorable dog—elicit no responses.

When I see that zero in the comment box, when I am confronted with this public display of my lack of social standing, it all comes back. There, in my gut, is that feeling of humiliation I experienced as an unpopular teenager. There, in my mind’s eye, are those bags of uneaten hamburger buns, destined for freezer burn. And there, so real in my memory I could almost reach out and smack him, is Garry Norman who, as it turned out, never showed up for my party.



What My Parents Left Me (With)

As if my husband didn’t have enough reason to kill me, recently I have come into an inheritance. It wasn’t a quit-your-job-and-travel-the-world-size inheritance, but it was enough to turn us into the kind of middle-class family that can actually do some of the things all those toothy financial advisors prescribe to the masses.

Before the inheritance, our family of four (me, hubby, and two daughters) lived paycheck to paycheck. We typically paid for “luxuries” like the occasional long weekend at the beach on credit cards. Despite relentless bill-paying and magical thinking, our debt load continued to creep up like ill-fitting underwear.

But now, thanks to the fact that my dad and mom worked long careers, lived within their means, and planned and saved responsibly for decades, I, in my early fifties, have achieved a modicum of financial health. My husband (a psychologist) and I (an author) now have IRAs like real grown-ups. We have established college funds for our young teenagers, something we were told to do before I even went off the Pill. We even have a short-term savings account for emergencies, though that, literally, fell by the wayside when our stone wall collapsed into the road a few weeks ago.

Without a doubt, this financial boost has alleviated a lot of worries. But my inheritance has come with an unexpected price. I used to think of myself as a loving daughter, not to mention a relatively decent, non-greedy person. I also used to think my interest in math peaked around the same time my teachers stopped using jelly beans to demonstrate counting. Yet only days after my mom died (my dad passed away a few years earlier), I morphed from a grieving orphan into a walking calculator.

“So what’s my share of the spoils?” I asked my brother-in-law, who handled my parents’ financial affairs in the years after my dad died and my mom needed help. No, those weren’t my exact words, but the sentiment was the same.

“What about their annuities?” I prodded.

“How much do you think we can get for the sale of the house?”

Mind you, this was the very same house where I, despite a sulky nature, enjoyed a happy childhood. This was also the same house where my mother spent her last days, though not without the help of round-the-clock caregivers. And how much did that cost me?!! I silently fumed, a question that had never, I swear, reared its ugly head, that is until the reality of the inheritance kicked in.

A week after my mom’s funeral, I went through her house, claiming my portion of my parents’ belongings. Into my rented U-Haul I stuffed their expensive living room set (so much nicer than my own!), the Simon Pearce lamps, the sunroom furniture… But as it turns out, my inheritance wasn’t limited to just my parents’ money or their more upscale belongings. It seems I also was left, or more accurately left with, an image I can’t seem to shake.

I am standing in my parents’ living room about to leave my childhood home, probably for the last time. In the fireplace—the one my parents only used for show—I spot a decorative birch log with three small wells carved out for candles. I look around at the now decimated room, at the dirty shoe-print on my mother’s formerly pristine hardwood floor. It seems awful, unbearable, to think of removing that log, such an obvious symbol of home and hearth. But it is pretty, and I want it, so I take that, too.


How to Edit Your Editor

Editors are like lifelines to writers. They exist to save us from the embarrassment of obfuscation, sentimentality, saggy middles, misplaced modifiers, and other detractions that can cling to a manuscript like toilet paper to a shoe. What’s more, editors read everything and know the market. This makes them book experts, and a perfect test audience for how your book is going to hold up when it is on a store shelf surrounded by thousands of eye-catching tomes.

So how can you make the most of your working relationship with your editors, whether at a publishing house or publication?  Click here to read my full post on editing your editor at Write Directions!

If You Think You’re Special…

“I’m so ordinary. Boring. Why would anyone want to read about me?

This was the refrain I heard again and again while working on my book project This Day in the Life: Diaries from Women across America. For each volume in the three-book series, I invited hundreds of women across the country (CEOs, nuns, nursing home residents, models, madams, moms…) to create a “day diary” on the very same day. With amazing candor these contributors shared their activities, thoughts, and innermost feelings. But the vast majority—regardless of their circumstances—also shared their doubts about the value of their contribution.

“I’m fifty-seven years old,” they apologized.

“I’m just a pet photographer,” they warned.

“I’m not doing anything interesting that day,” even the most exotic of the day diarists bemoaned.

Clearly, women are in the midst of an epidemic of perceived ordinariness. If you think I’m exaggerating, ask yourself: Are you special? Well, are you? Chances are, unless you happen to be swimming with a dolphin at the moment, or have just found a solution to the debt crisis, your response will likely be no.

But where is this collective sensibility coming from? As with most issues, the problem probably stems from our childhood. Think about it. As a kid, every time you felt deserving of a little extra attention; say the teacher praised your finger painting to the class—there was some other kid setting you straight, You think you’re special, but you’re snot.

Of course now that we’re grown women we’re over our childhoods. (Ha!) But contemporary forces are at work too, contributing to our feelings of ordinariness. Consider our celebrity-obsessed culture. The media sends a clear-cut message. Only one woman in the entire country deserves our attention—Jennifer Lopez. And even she doesn’t get as much press as her amazing rear end.

In fact, most of everyday life conspires to make women feel ordinary, assaulting us with our banality in the form of form letters, drawstring pants (the absolute wrong style for any woman who has experienced childbirth), less pay for equal work, and, most disturbingly, middle age, a stage in life where women are inclined to feel not just ordinary, but virtually invisible, despite achieving such accomplishments as well-mannered offspring, “second” incomes, and gun control legislation.

Yet I know that all women—even those lacking Jennifer Lopez’s assets—are actually quite interesting. How can I be so sure? Because I have a low threshold for boredom. Knitting. Housework. Robert Altman movies. None of these things hold my attention. In contrast, I found each day diary interesting, not necessarily because of the contributor’s activities—what she did at work that day, for example, or achieved on her To Do list—but because these accounts revealed something more intrinsically compelling. They revealed the extraordinary in the ordinary.

You manage to get through a lousy review at work without acting defensive.

You share a laugh with friends.

You (begrudgingly) take the steps instead of the elevator, determined to lose those last fifteen pounds.

These are the moments, funny and serious, quiet and dramatic, that occur throughout any given day, and illuminate who we really are. One of my favorite responses to the book project came from a fifty-year-old mother of four who works as a nurse’s aide. After re-reading her day diary with some distance, she was amazed at how much she liked, even admired, the woman on those pages. Later, she sent me a note; This is the biggest movement since women burned their bras.

I think this contributor might have been exaggerating just a bit, but I hope her words are prophetic. Because recording a day in your life does indeed reveal a reality too often overlooked. If you think you’re special—or even if you don’t—well, you are, even on an ordinary day.