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Going Gray

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After giving up hair coloring more than a decade ago, the time has come for me to address the subject. Going natural, whether it means gray, silver, or bald, is fast becoming the hottest hair style for boomer gals, so if I don’t speak up now I’ll never prove I’m not just another trend follower (the faithful know how I feel about trends!). I saw signs that  gray was becoming trendy a while back, but  Silver: A State of Mind,  a new photographic collection by Vicki Topaz of women who allow their gray hair to show without shame or chemical disguise, finally pushed my must-write button.

Actually, pushed isn’t the right word: inspired is more like it. I’m not worked up to an angry froth, but blown away: visit the site and you’ll see what I mean. The heads that make me most envious are those with white or silver ponytails. White or silver, these are the colors to which I aspire. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get there, though; after all these years, I still carry a mix of shades. The problem can’t be genetic if my female forebears are any indication: My mother, gone since 2005, and my Aunt Janice, now in her late 80s, bleached for most of their lives, but when their natural color proved lighter than anything their potions could produce, they dumped the whole stinking mess–and incidentally gave me the courage to someday go gray myself.

Aunt Janice, in wheelchair; sister Linda, second to right

On the other hand, my sister Linda vows to bleach her way to the grave.

Unlike my relatives, I was never a blonde wanna-be. Neither was I happy, though, with the mousy brown bestowed on me by nature.

Brenda Starr

I was a redhead in my heart, with Brenda Starr,* girl reporter, as my role model. I started coloring at 16, went natural during the hippie years, briefly flirted with blonde later on, returned to red, tried henna, tried French ammonia-less dye, and finally, fed up with the stink, the burning scalp and rumors of cancer, went cold turkey and gray.

Unlike some of the women in the exhibit that I heard speak on NPR, I didn’t get flak from anyone except for my haircutter. She kept harassing me, and had no shame: told me I looked ten years older than necessary. I kept threatening to stop coming to her for haircuts if she didn’t stop. She didn’t. And I stopped going to her.

My mother, of course, was supportive, and assured me that someday my hair would be as white as hers. As for jobs and that sort of thing, I’m self-employed and try not to need too much from the kind of people who’d dump on me for gray hair.

I was also somewhat surprised by the meaning some people read into the decision to stop coloring one’s hair. Going gray just hasn’t been that big a deal for me. I tell people, and it’s no joke, that one of my reasons was so the kids on the bus would give me their seats; unfortunately, they still don’t.  I’m not saying I’m totally cool with aging; right now, in fact, I’m downright devastated by a sudden swelling of my ankles. I’m not proud, as some women seem to be, to have survived this long. But neither am I about to lay down and die before I’m forced to do so. It’s certainly not that I don’t think about aging: I think about it more than most of my peers. It’s just that, to me, gray hair is the least of it.

So what’s not the least of it? Um, let’s see, oh yeah! Getting closer to death, that’s a biggie. Also, I worry about awful diseases or amputated limbs or losing my mind (evidence it’s happening already!) and might have to live like that for decades. Already I hate living without cigarettes and a few other things the bod can no longer tolerate. Then there’s losing people who keep dying, from close friends to Dick Clark.  Yep, hair is the least of it.

I’ve always had what they call a “rich interior life” and these days, or years, the mind is working overtime. It’s not just worry, though: there’s a lot more, but I’m not about to empty my brains onto the screen in one fell swoop. Let’s just say it’s not easy being me. I know I’m not the only one, that it’s just not easy being human, and the older we get the harder it gets. As Bette Davis said, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”It sure ain’t, whether you’re gray, silver, blonde, or red!

* Do me–and yourself–a favor: Click on the Brenda Starr link and go read the Wikipedia page on her. I knew almost nothing about my childhood heroine; after reading all this, my worship of her has been not only validated but revitalized.

Coming Out Old

Caveat: Please take the following with a grain of salt. Now that I’ve written it, I’m not so sure I still feel this way!–MS

When was it I first began thinking about age? It seems to me I became aware of my own physiological process as far back as my 30s—but it wasn’t until my mid-40s that the internal dialog shifted, becoming more serious and insistent. By now—I’m approaching 62—the subject of age dominates my thinking on a daily basis.

Gender activists say that the first thing we want to know about a person is their gender; but these days the first thing I want to know about someone is their age. I look at just-met people as well as strangers on the street and try to guess how old they are. If I know, then I compare myself to them. Age has become the yardstick by which I measure character, personality, and depth of experience—even aware that I’m stereotyping. Call it age profiling.

But how I view others is nothing compared to the mental energy I expend on my own aging process. Half the time I’m wondering if I appear old to others, the rest of the time worrying whether I look and act appropriate for my years. Mind you, I’ve lived my entire life as an iconoclast, doing absolutely nothing at the appropriate age or in the appropriate manner—yet I now feel inadequate because my circumstances as an older woman differ radically from most of my peers. It turns out that iconoclasm, or the more common but less precise term, non-conformity, worked just fine in my youth and middle years—but at this stage, I find myself wishing I’d played by the rules–Code Americana for good person.

Rather than dwell on all that mishmash, I’d rather attempt to put forth a new view of the aging process, one that’s not only different from past models, but also different from the more recent baby boomer cheer-leading point of view. You know, the rah-rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, we’re so special, so healthy, so emotionally positive, we’re having a grand time at 50 and beyond. We start new careers, volunteer to save the planet, create new communities in Florida or Arizona where we have fun-in-the-sun all day and party like animals all night. None of that boo-hoo, isolated, self-pitying, TV-watching bitterness for our generation. No sir! Sixty is the new forty. Barf. To me, this is just as oppressive as the old paradigm—perhaps even more so.

I’ve never been a pioneering entrepreneur, nor have I been a fun-in-the-sun kind of gal. Why would I become that sort of person now? To prove that age hasn’t caught me in its shadowy netherland? Maybe I was just born old, but my idea of a good time has always been to putter around the house in my bathrobe, or curl up with a good book.

Actually that’s not entirely true. Sure, I’ve always loved reading and even puttering—but I also loved to party, to dance, to drink, and, as Joni Mitchell puts it, to toot ‘n talk all night long. I loved flirting—and beyond. I was the first one on the dance floor and the last to leave the party–unless, of course, I got lucky early.

Now I see almost nobody except my grown son. I stopped going to parties when alcohol on top of anti-depressants played funny tricks on me, and I had to stop drinking. Turns out that, without a glass of amber liquid, I can’t tolerate talking to more than one person at a time. This goes for any group activity, not just parties—dinner in restaurants, political meetings, demonstrations, you name it. Also, I got rid of my car two years ago, partly because, since I’m up half the night like a typical old insomniac, I fall asleep at the wheel. You can see how all this might limit one’s social life.

hopper.jpgBut I’ve still only scratched the surface. The crux of the matter is, I want to be old. I’m ready. I’ve lived long enough to deserve the perks due an old lady: basically, the right to rest. The right not to run around in frantic activity all day every day. The right not to carry packages, babies, platters of food or piles of presents (I’m writing this on Christmas Eve Day.) Furthermore, I want people to expect me to be old, to not expect me to exert myself like a younger person. I hate being told, by people who think it’s a compliment, that I’m not that old. I don’t want to be pressured to get out there again and start dating—dating!—to take a class, join a book club, or go to the gym. Doing these things just because I’m 60 isn’t a prescription for youthfulness anyway. It’s based on the assumption that older people need to find ways to pass the time. But I’m still doing what I’ve always done–reading and writing.

Fondly I remember my two maternal great-grandmothers, both of whom I had until near puberty. We called them Bema, my mother’s childhood mispronunciation of Grandma. Bema Rosenfeld was big and fat and always cooking—but she didn’t do much of anything else; she had to rest her extremely large, tired legs. Bema Lichtenfeld, on the other hand, was tiny and wizened–and not once in my life did I see her out of her rocking chair. Nobody expected them to put a cheery, young face on things. Nobody expected anything of them at all.

Okay, so they were 80-something. But while everyone’s saying we’re all going to live into our 90s or even to 100 now, the truth is we never know when that bell is going to toll. As a die-hard smoker I may not make it through my sixties. Assuming I die at seventy, that gives me just eight years. If I don’t get to experience being old now, I never will. And, should I live to topple every statistic and end up being old for 30 years, so what? Is it cheating to take up  elder space and resources for 20 or 30 years? Considering that the majority of my peers refuse to go gentle, plenty of elder space should be available.


So let’s get down to basics. I want to see a return to traditional treatment of older people—by which I mean the way they were treated, in America, two or three generations ago. I want teenagers on the bus to stand up and give me their seats as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, which it used to be. Now they’re either afraid of insulting us, or else they’re just plain inconsiderate. I stopped dying my hair, hoping the gray would earn me a seat, but nooo…and that’s another thing: I like my silver hair, and I don’t want anyone telling me to start coloring it again. I want younger friends to treat me like a wise elder, to ask me about Alan Freed’s rock ‘n’ roll shows, or the first women’s march down Fifth Avenue, or the day John Lennon was shot, without being afraid they might offend me. I want salespeople to treat me with respect, to wait on me promptly, not act like I’m invisible—that’s modern, not traditional, behavior. I want cars to come to a full stop, without edging slowly forward, so I can cross the street without wondering if they’ve seen me. I wouldn’t mind it if, when I’m trudging up the hill with four bags of groceries, panting and sweating, some nice young man or woman offered to carry my bags. Better yet, I’d love it if one of them offered me a ride. (Hah! Waiting endlessly for a bus one day, I asked a familiar looking man if he’d drive me a mile up the hill. He said, I don’t pick up hitchhikers.)

When I run into acquaintances of whatever age, I’d appreciate it if they wouldn’t ask me what I’ve been up to, assuming that the answer will describe wondrous accomplishments. In fact, there are a lot of assumptions I wish people wouldn’t make: like, that I’m as busy as I always was, or that just because I have kids and grandkids my holidays are always booked. Then again, don’t assume I’m a charity case who needs an invitation.

I can just hear the judgments rolling in. Maybe not, since people don’t comment that much on my blog, much less to ‘dis me. (Does anyone actually ‘dis people on their blogs? Seems kinda rude.) But if this were a newspaper column, you bet your ass I’d be Hitler of the Week in the letters to the editor section for awhile. She’s a whiner. A complainer. Negative. Self-centered. Selfish. Let her be old, then. Let her rot alone with her television.

If readers conclude that I’m asking to be left alone in front of the television, then they haven’t understood a word I’ve written–or else I didn’t manage to effectively communicate my vision of aging. It’s only for myself, by the way: I’m not saying everyone needs to adopt my point of view–so there’s no cause for judgment. Or pity. Or even a cheer.

Because all I want as an older person is exactly what I’ve wanted at every stage of my life: to be accepted as I am.

Doris Lessing, at 87

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