1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion: “He retired to his study”. 2. to fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion and according to plan, as from battle, an untenable position, danger, etc. 3. to withdraw or remove oneself: “After announcing the guests, the butler retired”. 4. to withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age: to retire at the age of sixty. 5. retirement or withdrawal, as from worldly matters or the company of others.
One of my friends is passionate about Latin America and travels widely, monitoring elections and writing for an international journal. Her life-long “career” as an energy consultant is gradually shifting to her passionate “avocation”.
A family member who is a therapist decided to significantly pull back on her work hours, but then it didn’t “feel right”. Instead of leaving her practice, she decided to slow down the process, and continues to see clients. She is working fewer hours, spends more time with her children and grandchildren, and has increased her volunteer work.
Another friend had a decades-long successful career as a librarian. As her retirement approached, she was uncertain about what would come next, but stayed open to possibilities. She now works as a volunteer in a number of non-profit organizations, travels, reads, and has time to hang out with friends and former colleagues.
And me? I don’t plan to retire for a long time. First off, even though I’m technically approaching the typical “retirement age”, I like to work because I’d like to think that I’m contributing to making the world a slightly better place, at least in the small piece of the universe I inhabit. Maybe more basic is the fact that, like many people, I can’t afford to retire!
When it comes to major life changes, I like to be fully informed, so I decided to study “retirement narratives”. It’s an informal study that is personally driven by my desire to remain engaged in and satisfied with life when I stop working for pay someday (who knows which day). My study is a pre-emptive strike against loneliness and a concern that as I age, I will be on the periphery, no longer a contributor to the world, no longer a player in daily life…I know this can happen because I’ve seen it happen, and I bet you have too. My observations and intuition have been confirmed by reading a ton of books about aging, in preparation for an aging course I taught at Brandeis University, as well as following the substantial media coverage of issues of aging. My feeling was that my informal study would provide me with an opportunity to better understand this life changing event from a sociological perspective.
My role model for retirement was my father, who didn’t stop working in his job as an English professor until he was around 95 years old. I used to think that his formula – essentially, to never stop working – was how I wanted to live my life. I, too, imagined that I would basically work full-time until I dropped. But now I’m re-thinking my plans. And that’s where my research comes in. My study basically consists of informal “interviews” with friends who are reducing their paid work hours, as well as informal “chats” with acquaintances I run into in random places, like CVS, walking around Jamaica Pond, and on the street. For the people I know and with whom I have regular contact, I plan to follow them over a long period of time, meaning that I want to see what they do and how they adjust for as long as I know them, which could be until I or they die. With these friends, I hear the intimate details of their decision-making. Some of them had full-time jobs in organizations or institutions that provide incentives to retire, and some worried that they might lose their jobs past a certain age. Others work more autonomously as therapists or consultants. I want to understand how these friends feel about their paid job as they consider “winding down”: What do they consider will supplant the intense time and commitment they have made to this work? Do they have fears about retirement? Do they have passions they plan to pursue, and plans in place? Do they view retirement as an abyss or a welcome opportunity, neither or both? What will the transition period away from paid work be like? Do they just stop working for pay one day, or do they gradually decrease their hours, and increase the time they spend doing unpaid work or having fun! (imagine that!) How happy are they after retirement, which may include how active they are and how social they are? And lest we forget, how does their health – or the health of their partner – factor into the equation?
The research questions I employ with my “almost, kinda” friends have a one-two punch. We start by asking one another a few basic questions: “How are you?”, is the starter. Can’t get more basic than that! And then a probing question: “And what have you been up to?” Now this question also seems pretty basic but the reply reveals a lot through their words as well as their body language. If/when they say they’re retired – or just that they left their job of many years – my panoply of probes is unleashed and I ask, “Is it a good thing?” This is a general yes-no question, followed up by “How do you fill your days?” That’s the meat of what I’m looking for.
My informal study has no real parameters. My “sample” is fairly random; it’s not designed with any demographic in mind; I’ll talk to anyone. I’m not keeping track of how many people I’m interviewing, and I’m cool with going with the flow of the conversation, wherever it leads. I’m not discovering anything new, in a broader sense. There’s plenty of literature that argues for continued engagement in life, as one ages. Instead, my study is about getting at the particulars. What do people do as they’re considering retirement? Do they consciously prepare? Once they retire, what are they doing and how do they feel about it?
The issue of retirement has become even more salient because we are living longer. For example, in 2000, the life expectancy in the U.S. for women was 77.6, and for men it was 74.3. In 2010, those numbers had jumped to 79 and 76 respectively. It’s important to note that there is also a racial disparity, as reflected in 2010 figures, with white women projected to live until they are 81.3, and African-American women projected to live until they are 78. For men, the comparison between white and African-American men is 76.5 to 71.8, respectively.
Despite these gender and race disparities, an increase in longevity has resulted in a larger gap in time between official retirement and the point where people stop working for pay altogether. Dr. Mo Wang from the University of Maryland calls this period “post-retirement”, a time when people may choose self-employment, part-time work or temporary jobs. Dr. Jacquelyn B. James, from Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work (http://www.bc.edu/research/agingandwork/) calls this “transition” period “the “crown of life”, which implies that it is a special time, perhaps less fraught with the demands of one’s “regular” job which may have consumed years or decades of their lives. According to Wang’s research, “retirees who transition from full-time work into a temporary or part-time job experience fewer major diseases and are able to function better day-to-day than people who stop working altogether.”
At the same time, other research doesn’t focus on the impact of paid work; rather, it notes that as people age, those who stay engaged in life, both socially and intellectually, will fare much better than those who retreat, regardless if they are working for pay or doing something else like volunteering, doing unpaid caregiving work, or just about any activity that engages them.
In my effort to amass retirement narratives, I welcome you to tell me yours! It would be great to hear about your journey, whether you’re in the thinking stage or you have started instituting changes in your paid work schedule, or you have left a paid job and are in a next chapter of your life!
Also, just for fun, check out this video of a policy debate between Republican Paul Ryan who wants to increase the retirement age, claiming that the Social Security fund is depleted, and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who strongly disagrees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIrltAkTf38
What happens when some women break the glass ceiling? A few of them become authors of best-selling novels in which they deconstruct their workplace experiences and offer advice to others. This is a good thing, in the tradition of sisters helping one another out. But which sisters and what kind of advice do they offer? Perhaps the most popular and controversial of the genre right now is Lean In, authored by Facebook Executive, Sheryl Sandberg, who authored an endearingly honest and forthright book about what women need to do to overcome obstacles and move up the career ladder. What I love about Sandberg’s writing is that she has broken the code of silence about what it feels like to be a woman in corporate America. She does it with personal stories about her own insecurities and vulnerabilities as a woman manager, as well as with facts about the gendered workplace, acknowledging the uneven playing field in which a preponderance of men dominate top positions in business and government.
I’m sure that her message resonates with thousands of professional working women across America. But Sandberg’s narrative unfortunately does not speak to women innon-professional jobs, where being assertive in the workplace doesn’t get you more; in fact, it just might get you fired. In fact, most women workers aren’t aiming for the top; they’re simply trying to make ends meet.
One could argue that having women on top will make it better for all women, but that’s not necessarily the case. All the stereotypes that persist about women in the broader society – their inability to be assertive or think rationally in a crisis – become the yardsticks of assessment of women’s behavior when they are in management positions. Simply because they are women, they are judged more critically and closely. Not only is this personally uncomfortable for them; it may also affect their status in a company or government organization. Women on top must develop survival strategies to deal with pervasive sexism they experience on a daily basis.
They are subject to a dominant workplace culture in America that overvalues long hours as a measure of commitment and loyalty. This is the backdrop against which women in management – or high level positions – operate. When women upper-level managers make policies about their subordinates’ work policies, they are operating in a “gender-loaded zone”, in which their decisions may be scrutinized by their male colleagues.
The reality is that professions that are dominated by men pay more, and those that are dominated by women pay less (e.g., programming vs. coding, doctoring vs. nursing, tenure track teaching job vs teaching kindergarten).One strategy is to encourage more women to pursue higher paid professions, and that’s fine. But this doesn’t address the devaluing of jobs that are more “gender-coded” like teaching, nursing, and anything related to caregiving work.
While I fully support the notion of women asserting themselves in the workplace (when it isn’t too risky!), many women – and men – would benefit from a range of public policies that protect their jobs and support their capacity to balance their work lives with their personal – including family – demands. In my own research on parental leave use in a large financial services corporation, I found that upper-level women didn’t use the policy AT ALL, largely because they either didn’t have kids (was this a business decision?) or because they waited until their children were older before going after upper management jobs. Women in middle-management used less leave time than they were legally allowed to take, and women in lower-level jobs took the least amount of leave time. What about men? They tended not to use the parental leave policy at all; rather, they took two weeks of vacation time after the birth or adoption of a new baby. What I found was two-fold: Given that we only have an unpaid leave policy in the U.S. (counter to most other industrial countries that provide paid leaves), family economics often called for the lower-paid worker to take time off to care for a newly arrived baby, and that was usually a woman. Moreover, the culture of the workplace rewards long hours, so that parental leave is considered time “taken” away from the job (e.g., profits) over time taken to parent, an unpaid job that is devalued by business norms. Hence the title of my book: Taking Time: Parental Leave Policy and Corporate Culture. http://www.amazon.com/Taking-Time-Women-Political-Economy/dp/1566396476
A more complete picture – one that addresses the needs of all workers – must include a set of universal policies, including pay equity to break down gendered wage differentials, paid parental leave to ensure that women AND men use leave time, flexible work policies that allow people to balance their work and personal demands, and universal child care to ensure that all young children have access to quality, affordable early care and education. In addition to offering advice about being more assertive in the workplace, we need these policies if we are to make any inroads towards changing the playing field for women and men. Moreover, for those in non-management positions, there must be formal policies as well as informal organizational support to ensure that being assertive in the workplace won’t cost them their jobs.
How can we enhance the recent messaging around women in the workplace to ensure that it addresses not only the micro level – how we as women and men operate in the context of our workplaces – but also the macro level, how workplace policies – including family policies – are needed to establish protections in the workplace?
Writing is a solo act, but for those in attendance at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, or AWP (https://www.awpwriter.org/) this past weekend, you’d think it was one big party, with over 12,000 people moving through the sterile hallways of Boston’s massive Hynes Convention Center to attend hundreds of sessions. I had been forewarned that this event was downright overwhelming. So before I stepped foot into the Hynes, I carefully studied the program, selected sessions that fit my criteria, and found out exactly where they were physically located. Getting lost in the Convention Center was not on my agenda! As it turned out, this surgical approach served me well.
In one day, I managed to attend five sessions, chat with five random strangers, purchase an energy bar for nearly $5, and wander around the book fair where I was invited by at least five non-residency writing programs to look at their literature. I spoke with five or so small presses about their books, and was also accosted by a woman selling a weeklong “writing trip” to Paris, which was, in sum, a total rip-off. Of my small sample of informal interviewees, a few were undergraduate creative writing majors who were totally blown away by the panoply of rich resources in one place; one was an art history professor and another was a writing professor.
But I wasn’t there to make friends, although later I joined the Women’s Caucus of the organization (yes, there is gender bias everywhere!). I was there because I’m writing a memoir about the experience of caring for my dad in his final year of life, in which I am inter-weaving my family’s experience of political persecution, the FBI and more. I wanted to hear published authors talk about their experience writing memoirs, and to garner some tips about the process of publishing this type of book.
Here are a few gems that I got from the conference:
In a panel called “The Art of Losing”, authors talked about how profound personal loss fuels their writing. One of my favorite speakers on this panel was Jennine Capó Cruce, author of How to Leave Hialeah(http://www.jcapocrucet.com/), who said that she was told that she shouldn’t write from anger. But as she wrote her book, she saw rage as her source, and while writing her book, recognized that underneath her rage was grief.
In a panel called “How Do You Know You’re Ready?”, novelists shared stories about manuscripts they either sent to agents too soon or had locked in drawers, never to see the light of day. I realized that the question of when a book is complete is a universal question. The panelists seemed to agree that knowing when you’re done writing a book is a “visceral thing”. I was touched that the panelists also welcomed attendees to approach them with questions at the end of the session. I asked novelist Dawn Tripp (http://www.dawntripp.com/) for suggestions about making a “pitch” to an agent. She offered me a few tips, including “make it short and to the point”. And another panelist, Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air (http://loveinmidair.com/), added that it’s important to maintain the voice of the book when you’re trying to get others interested.
In a session called, “It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere”, Melissa Febos talked about her book, Whip Smart, in which she wrote about her three years as a dominatrix while attending a liberal arts college in New York City (http://melissafebos.com/). Kassi Underwood talked about her book, A Lost Child, but Not Mine (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/fashion/a-lost-child-but-not-mine-modern-love.html?pagewanted=all), which chronicles her experience of having an abortion and then encountering her ex-boyfriend who was now a father. And Nick Flynn described the writing of his book, Another Night in Suck City about seeing his estranged father in the homeless shelter where he worked. The book was later turned into a film called, “Being Flynn” with Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore. Talk about star struck!
In a session called “Poetics of Fiction in/at Buffalo”, three writers read from their work about my poverty-stricken, yet vibrant hometown of Buffalo, New York. Ted Pelton (http://www.starcherone.com/ted/) began with this poem: “Buffalo Buffalo, Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo…”, saying that no other city can be a noun, verb and adjective. And Buffalo writer of Buffalo Noir, Dmitri Anastasopoulos (http://www.akashicbooks.com/catalog-tag/dimitri-anastasopoulos/), brought the experience full circle for me, when he said, “Buffalo is all about loss”.
The conference had a commercial element as well: In a so-called “Book Fair”, the small presses are there to entice writers, as are the creative writing programs and artists’ retreats. But one of my favorite booths in the exhibition hall was run by 826 National, a nonprofit organization that runs eight writing and tutoring centers around the country, aimed at helping at-risk youth find a voice to tell their stories (http://www.826national.org/). And who knows? Perhaps these young people will be the authors of tomorrow, and future attendees of this chaotic but enriching experience that is AWP…
I don’t know about you, but for a few days – well maybe a week – I was obsessed with the soap opera that unfolded with General Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, and the Kardashian-look-alike twins who throw champagne-infused parties for the military elite. Who knew that this world even existed?! It was temporarily intoxicating. That said, this is not a James Bond story, where seduction and hot sex are intertwined with power and our country’s national security. This is the everyday horror of people making terrible personal mistakes. And I’m not surprised that as readers try to make sense of the un-reality of “the facts”, a number of narratives about who to blame have been dusted off and brought to bear once again.
According to one narrative, the blame goes to the evil temptress, a Harvard-trained intellectual and top-of-the-line athlete (read: good in the sack) who brings down the CIA chief. Think Fatal Attraction, where the woman is in charge and the man is uncontrollably gripped by her charm and power, with no alternative but to succumb. In another narrative, the blame goes to the high-level spy who takes advantage of – no, seduces – the lower-level acolyte, and just cannot keep it zipped up, despite all his medals to the contrary. Think Bill Clinton, driven by self-destruction, someone who acts first and thinks later. Hardly the image one wants to conjure up for the head of the CIA. Less prominent, but implicit among these narratives, is the role of the spy guy’s wife, who is subtly blamed for not satisfying her man. This narrative blames her because she’s middle-aged (read, unattractive), with the assumption is that she no longer has the goods. Narrative three then morphs into narrative two, which combines with narrative one, in which said high-level spy has no alternative but to explore younger, more supple, women, and one of them just happens to be out to get him. A perfect storm…
While there might be some bitter truth in all of these narratives, I’d like to focus on that last one, which capitalizes on the notion that older guys get more sexy, in contrast to older women, who get more dowdy, wrinkly and saggy as we age. This narrative has it that as women get older, we lose our appeal; we no longer shine; we fade; we become less attractive. And barring heavy use of botox and liposuction, that so-called “fact” is justification for our men to rove.
Now back to the Petraeus “affair”. Thankfully, the media is not exploiting Holly Petreaus’ story, only to say that she is furious. (Wouldn’t you be if you happened to be married to this adulterous four-star General? Okay, maybe you find it hard to imagine that you’d marry this dude…) But according to military spouse and marriage consultant, Jacey Eckhart, this telenovella (melodramatic soap opera in Spanish) has fired up fears among other military spouses, who are worried that their marriages will follow suit. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/opinion/the-petraeus-effect-on-military-marriage.html?ref=opinion
While Eckhart, a competent, articulate military spouse, knows rationally that she has nothing to worry about in her own relationship, she says the scandal has “reduced me to a wet towel and tears”. Why? Because she says that men, as they age, become more like Cary Grant, and women become more like the older “Tony Curtis”, meaning old (and kinda gay). Granted (no pun intended), military families endure enormous strains because they move frequently, and often it is the spouse who helps their family settle in a new area while the military “member” is off fighting a war (or hopefully keeping peace somewhere in the world!).
Moreover, repeat deployments place even more strain on the family, both when the military member is gone, as well as when s/he comes back, after having been traumatized by the experience of war. But separation of military spouses and their families – and ensuing loneliness – is the issue, not whether a woman can stay hot enough to hold onto her man.
Eckert laments that “history isn’t enough to keep a long military marriage together”. At the same time, she notes that military marriages end at the same rate as so-called civilian marriages. So what’s the big deal?! The problem isn’t that men will be men, and women should quiver in their boots for fear they will be cast off for a better model. The problem is that we gals sometimes internalize the societal notions that our shelf lives have expired once we hit 40 or 50 or 60. Instead of buying into – or internalizing – these lethal notions, we need to embrace the woman we are becoming, our all-inclusive selves, including our wisdom about people and life, and even the tell-tale wrinkles and sags and possibly even the dowdiness. Let’s not compare ourselves to younger women and feel self-critical. The reality is that we are all the ages we have been, and so much more. Of course, it’s important that we take care of ourselves – that we eat well, and remain active intellectually and physically; those lifestyle choices are critical if we want to live a long life. But ultimately, our worth should not be measured by our youthfulness. Even the General is now saying it was a big mistake…
As our daughter goes into her final year of college, I have begun to feel a sense of trepidation about what comes next. The seniors I taught this past semester are already going into panic mode as they face a very uncertain future. Regardless of all the internships and community service experiences they are accruing, there’s no avoiding the dour statistics for young college graduates. When one student came to me, asking for advice about applying for a consulting job that was way beyond her reach, I found myself counseling her about the virtues of working in a coffee shop. So what if she’s an international relations major!
My first “real” job after graduating college was working in a state psychiatric hospital. This seemed like a “natural” place to be, since one whole side of my family was riddled with serious psychiatric disorders. Between an aunt with agoraphobia who never left her house, an aunt and an uncle who had “manic-depression” (now called bipolar disorder, a much more “respectable” name), and a mother who struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism, I was quite at home working in an institution for people with severe mental health problems.
I had been a dancer for many of my young years, and my professional goal – if one could call it that– was to somehow combine my interest in helping people with my passion for dance. I lucked out, since the field of dance therapy was just emerging, and one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. was willing to train me during my senior year of college. When I graduated, the state psych hospital was hiring tons of young college graduates. This was the early ‘70s, when thousands of patients, people who had spent years, sometimes decades, living in inside the walls of state hospitals, were released into the community in a move to “de-institutionalize” them. The motive was humanitarian, but the upshot for many of the patients was downright cruel. Nonetheless, it did mean that a lot of my friends and I had jobs.
I was hired as the institution’s dance therapist – and worked with people who were still living “inside” the institution, as well as out-patients that were being transitioned into a day treatment program. I fell in love with schizophrenics who were smart and spoke in metaphors that seemed poetic and deep. Because I was a professional dancer in a mental hospital, many of the institution’s rules did not seem to apply to me. Or at least that’s what I thought and how I behaved… More than once, I led a group of patients in a snake line through the hallways, and we seemed off-limits to criticism, as this “crazy” activity was “therapy”! It felt downright revolutionary!
While this experience – working in an institution – wasn’t where I “landed” professionally, it was nothing short of a profound experience. I will never forget one of my out-patients, a diminutive woman named Ruth, who had spent her entire adult life imprisoned in the psych hospital. Ruth held her body like a tight fist, and stood all day, rocking rhythmically back and forth. I still feel teary when I think about her. There was another man who is seared in my mind: a tall, broad gentleman in a perpetual cowboy hat who people called “the Captain”. He was a man of few words, and those words were garbled, but he had a jovial demeanor. One of my most glorious days with him was when I took him for drive in the country, with two other patients. Outside it was minus forty degrees; but inside the car, with sun shining through the windows, it felt warm and protective. He said little throughout this drive, just smiled…
By the time I had been hired to work as a dance therapist at the state psych center, sociologist Erving Goffman had already published his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. One of Goffman’s greatest contributions was his critique of what he called “total institutions”, which included mental hospitals and prisons. Goffman argued that total institutions had a high degree of regimentation, and an elaborate privilege system. He described relations between staff and patients (or inmates) as caste-like, with detailed “rules” of deference and demeanor. One of the my favorite co-workers at Hutchings, a friendly and clever guy named Willie who was the janitor, surely understood Goffman’s analysis when he changed his first name from Willie to “Doctor”. Whenever anyone wanted his services, they would yell “Doctor” and he came running with a smirk on his face.
I knew nothing of Goffman while I was working in an institutional setting. But now, as I reflect on my first post-college job, and after studying this brilliant sociologist in graduate school and using his analyses in a class I now teach about the sociology of aging, it all comes back to me. First, I lived what Goffman described and then I was able to understand his theoretical frameworks, drawing upon my own experience. As my father used to say, everything we do in life accrues and has meaning. This has to be true, as well, for college students who are graduating to a lousy economy and a dearth of employment opportunities that “fit” with their majors.
Despite the draw of my first job, I realized within a year that I wasn’t going to last. I was too young, too inexperienced and too critical of the institution to stay. While I found the out-patients I was assigned to counsel interesting, I had no real training. And even though I was a good listener, I fought back tears every time a “client” expressed sadness or joy. What drove me to work at this state psych hospital – working with really troubled people – ultimately became the reason I had to leave. Ultimately, it wasn’t the right fit, even though it seemed right at the time. With a far more robust economy than we have today, I had saved up enough cash that year to travel in Europe for nearly a year, and that’s what I did!
While my career as a dance therapist came to a halt, my original passion – dance – continued to be my life-line for decades until around ten years ago, when I experienced a serious injury. For a year, I was in persistent pain and could barely move, much less dance. With the sudden loss of the activity that centered me and gave me such joy, I plunged into a deep depression and felt overtaken by panic, fearful that I would never heal. Like many back-pain sufferers, I bounced around to various practitioners, many of whom got frustrated with me because I wasn’t getting better. In one pain clinic, a doctor yelled at me, saying that I was fine. In another back healing program, a doctor challenged ME to figure out what the problem was, because she could not. Other practitioners told me that I wouldn’t heal if I stayed depressed and anxious. A true chicken and egg problem…
During this time, I had a glimpse of what my patients from many years before had experienced. The one person who comes to mind, in particular, is a young woman who was around my age and had participated in an ongoing dance session I held for outpatients. I never knew what her story was; only that she was struggling with depression and had obviously spent time in the hospital itself, which meant that she had been in the role of “patient”, complete with the dehumanization that comes with that experience. She came up to me after one of our dance sessions and thanked me, saying it was the one thing in that setting made her feel “normal”.
How are young, college-educated people dealing with this lousy economy, saddled with debt and poor prospects for a job? A number of young people I know are living at home, and working in unpaid internships that they hope will lead to a paid job. I know one young person who dropped out of college in her freshman year and learned how to do organic farming. Now she’s running a business where she creates peace gardens for interested clients. And I know another young person who couch-surfed for a few months, and then got a job sailing someone’s boat down to the Virgin Islands. At one point, during an intense storm, he wondered if he was even going to make it… I can imagine that he is not the only one feeling that way.
Over time, I have come to realize that we humans are drawn to different types of work at different stages of our lives, and often there is a reason. I happened to work at a mental hospital because it grabbed me emotionally – and that’s where there were jobs. But even then, when the economy was decent, that first job out was hit or miss. The thing that sustained me was dance. It continues to be my way in, and my way out. When I think about my own daughter – and all the young people I encounter these days – what I wish for them is the courage to follow their passion, and then feel okay about whatever job or internship (or whatever) they find, knowing that those things may not be the same thing. At least for now.
Like many people, I have scaled back on my holiday shopping, instead knitting colorful hats, amidst the usual onslaught of commercialism. On some level, it feels like the relief I’ve always wanted from the burden of the season’s overkill of happy Christmas cheer and frenzied buying. As a Jewish child in a household of quiet tension and heavy depression, I spent many hours escaping into the joy of Christmas on TV. My mother, who struggled with many demons, lit up during the Christmas season.
Our house was filled with little elves and toy sleighs, and we had a pink – need I say, fake? – Christmas tree, which sat on the mantle next to the Chanukah Menorah. This was to the dismay of my father, an avowed atheist who had been brought up in a strict Orthodox Jewish home. I loved Christmas, and I liked Chanukah. It’s one of the plights many Jews endure. How can Chanukah – a relatively minor holiday for Jews – possibly compete with the glamour and excitement of Christmas?! So perhaps it’s no surprise that the season conjures up a complicated mélange of feelings for me.
This year, as I neared the end of my knitting projects and gift buying, I ventured out to an upscale mall to buy that final present. I timed the visit so I would arrive the moment the mall opened on a Saturday morning, in hopes I could be in and out within a half hour, max. To my delight, the place was empty. I briskly walked by Gucci, Ann Taylor, Coach and Dolce & Gabanna, feeling somewhat smug about being a 99%-er in a 1% mall. I had only two stops to make. At the first, I purchased an item from a weary salesman who was bracing for yet another long day and seemed to appreciate my kindness and empathy. At the second store, I was greeted by a smiling saleswoman who said, ‘wow, you’re movin’ fast!’, helping me to maintain my pace, as she quickly processed my order.
As I was about to step onto the escalator to exit the mall, victorious in my rapid sweep, I heard a woman call out to me. Was it possible that someone knew me in this phalanx of the upper-class? No, it wasn’t anyone I knew; it was a well-heeled salesperson calling out to me from a small cosmetics stand. I turned around a second time, and we made eye contact, and she gestured for me to come over to her. Normally, I resist being roped into buying anything, much less a beauty product, and much less at a mall. But I had managed to not spend much money, and something about her friendly call amidst feeling stressed out in this upscale environment lowered my resistance.
The woman offered me a “simple treatment”. And I thought, why not take a moment for myself, a free moment with no obligations, and then I could sashay out of the mall feeling more relaxed and pampered… She took a calculated and up-close look at me, all the while, spewing a waterfall of words to both compliment me and convince me that I needed to buy a special “eye serum”. She bathed me in what you might call “back-handed compliments” – “you must have been very pretty when you were young, ah yes, you have lovely high cheek bones, and look at your gorgeous eyes! I’d love to see more of them!” I knew it was time to leave, but exhaustion and curiosity kept me there. When she blithely transitioned into the final hook, saying, “I have the product that will make you look much younger”, Mindy #1 said “leave immediately”, and Mindy #2 didn’t budge.
I allowed her to apply an “eye serum” around my eyes – clearly named to imply its scientific nature – while the saleswoman claimed it would reduce my wrinkles, dark circles and puffy eyes. Why didn’t I scream out “NO! I am fine the way I am!”, circles, puffy eyes and all? Mindy #1 knew she was falling for societal messages that glorify youth, and seduce middle-age and older women into spending millions of dollars to appear “young”. But Mindy #2 said that there was no harm in getting a freeby, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see the results of this magic application? Sensing my resistance, the saleswoman assured me that the product was safe and included only “organic ingredients” and “natural herbs”, all the while massaging my face (which felt good!) and telling me I was already looking younger. She worked only on one side of my face, promising me that I would see the difference when she was done.
And then she handed me a mirror and asked me to self-evaluate. Didn’t I see how much less puffy my ONE eye was? Couldn’t I see how the wrinkles had disappeared? Wasn’t my ONE eye looking brighter? Mindy #1 looked very closely and she agreed that one half of her face looked, for the lack of a better word, better… Then the saleswoman pulled out her calculator, as if we were close friends sharing a secret, and sidled up close to me, wordlessly holding it in front of my face to show me the price. You can guess that it wasn’t cheap. Mindy #2 took over, and got incensed. Seeing this reaction, the saleswoman appealed to Mindy #1 and counter-offered, whispering that she would use her special discount card, but no one else could find out. Do you think that the red flags shot up and sirens went off in my head? Yes, but, sadly only in the distance…
Even though I balked at the price, I had momentarily sipped the kool-aid, thinking that I could – or should – look younger through the application of this mysterious eye serum. The next price tag offered was still outrageously high, and the saleswoman got flustered (or should I say, “acted” flustered), moving about in her work area as if she were actually looking for something. Perhaps she was biding time as she thought of her next move, or maybe hoping her behavior would wear me down more. Finally, she stopped fidgeting and offered me an even “more special” discount, and, hooked into the bait, Mindy #1 said “yes”.
When I got home, I googled the product and confirmed that I was one of many, many women who have been bamboozled. The serum could be purchased on-line for about one-tenth the original asking price at the mall, and this so-called natural product was producing an allergic reaction for many of the angry women who “bought” into the youth serum argument… It was only after I realized I had been taken that I reminded myself that I’m fine with who I am, wrinkles and all.
What is aging well? It’s not about botox, eye serums and face lifts, although our consumerist economy would like us to believe that. It’s about eating well, exercising, staying intellectually engaged, and open to new people and ideas. We live in a youth-oriented culture where even young women are getting botox as a preventative measure! It’s time to reclaim our graying hair, our wrinkles and our sagging body parts! To love ourselves as we are…
At the time of this writing, the eye serum saga continues. I have returned to the mall twice to get a refund, but with this so-called “independent” business, only the owner has the “authority” to credit my account, and the owner is avoiding me. Should I camp out at the mall and demand my money back? Should I bring a group of 99%-ers to protest our culture that commodifies youth? Or should I not waste any more time on this foolishness and just accept that I lost some money? If nothing else, this experience has reminded me that I am not impervious to our youth-obsessed culture and am vulnerable to persuasion. Good information for the next time…
** When I first posted this piece, I said “stay tuned and check back at this site. I’ll let you know how the situation resolves (e.g., get my money back, have a raging argument with the owner, start an anti-anti-wrinkle campaign for older women!)…”
After two days of not getting a promised call-back from the owner, he finally called me this morning and said to come back to the mall for my refund. And lo and behold, I got it! THE END! P.S. This was only part of the battle won. I still may start an anti-anti-wrinkle campaign!