On Aging: Serenity Prayer

I poked at the fatty tuna on my plate with my chopsticks, eyeing up the one remaining California roll sitting atop a pile of shredded daikon radish.

“You mind if I eat that?”

Natasha glanced down at the plate, and said, “No – go ahead. I ate the shrimp.”

As I dunked the roll into my wasabi-tainted soy sauce, I said softly, “Nat, I think about getting old all the time now. I think about dying alone. And without money. I bumped up my 401k last week.”

Nat sipped her wine, and looked out the window at the people running to beat the impending rainstorm.

“Yeah. I stress out about money too.”

“See, that’s why we need kids. Because then you have someone to take care of you when you’re old and sick. Who’s going to care about my feeding tube? Who’s going to smuggle in a Culvers butter burger when I’m supposed to be on a low-fat, low-sodium diet? Who will lean in close to hear me whisper Rosebud?”

“I’ll come visit you, Jen. You know that.”

“So you’re saying that I’ll die first? Why am I always the one to go? Why are all my friends still going to be healthy and playing Mah Jong in senior living centers while I’m wearing diapers and having my jewelry stolen in a VA hospital?”

“Don’t you have to be a veteran to go to a VA hospital?”

I picked at the label of my Sapporo beer, and shrugged my shoulders.

“I don’t know. Probably. And now I’m too old to join the Army anyway, so I can’t even count on that. I mean, friends are great, but they don’t owe you. Children owe you. Friends will all have lives of their own to deal with. Look – Kim just bought a house. Seamus is going to buy one. Dr. Greene owns some stuff. Everyone’s getting established. No one’s going to have time to listen to me babble about the good old days while I buzz the nurse to come change my bed pan.”

“Well, Jenny. You can always still have children. A lot of women have children later in life, and they’re perfectly healthy. Start cranking some out!”

I took a deep breath and sighed, “See. That’s just it. I always wanted to have children, and I know that it could still happen, but something changed in me this year. I don’t know if I want them now. I mean, I did want them, but I think it’s just too late. I’m too settled. I don’t want to be taking care of children when I’m 60. And I think I finally just accepted that fact.”

“So then what’s the problem? Now you don’t want to have kids, so don’t have any kids. That’s one less thing you have to stress out about.”

But that was exactly the problem.

It was accepting the idea that I won’t have children that upset me. I always thought that acceptance was the end of the line, the final destination, the ultimate goal, but it’s really just the beginning of a whole new loop. Dr. Kubler-Ross lied to us all. I find myself grieving the fact that I have accepted this childless future. And the cycle continues. Right now I’m in denial that I’ve reached acceptance. Next week I’ll be angry about it. Then maybe I’ll do some bargaining. And so on.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when this philosophical change took place, but I suspect that it was a somewhat gradual evolution. Looking back over the years, I noticed a change in the way I spoke about children. I was able to track my state of mind through semantics:

“Someday when I have kids…”

“Someday if I have kids…”

“If I had kids…”

“My nephews…”

Nat continued, “And doesn’t part of you just want kids so that you can see what they would look like? I know I do. Maybe someone could just morph your face like they do with the missing children on the milk cartons to see what your kids would have looked like.”

I laughed, because it was true. There is a huge part of me that wants kids just to see what they would be like. Would my daughter have curly hair? Would my son be funny? Smart? Talented? Popular?

But what if she didn’t have curly hair? I know it’s so wrong of me to say this, but on some level I would be disappointed with a straight haired child. Sure, I’d still love her, but I’d always wonder where my genes had gone wrong. And one day, DCFS would remove her from my home because I was deemed an unfit mother for having given my three year old an Ogilvie Home Perm.

She kept pulling off the wigs! What did you expect me to do?

I started thinking more about Nat’s idea of being able to predict what my child would look like, and I really think she may be onto something. Instead of figuring out how to store more and more songs on smaller and smaller devices, I wish the geniuses of the world would work on creating some virtual reality simulators that would let me experience the things I will probably not experience in real life, so that I can feel like I haven’t totally missed out.

You know, things like:

  • iBaby

  • iMarriage
  • iGradSchool

This could satisfy my curiosity, without all the financial and emotional implications. I just hope someone invents that baby simulator soon, though. Even my virtual eggs are starting to turn.

Natasha listened sympathetically as I rambled on about birth and death and Social Security and hospital gowns. Somewhere amidst my monologue on dual incomes, I glanced outside and realized that it had started to hail. The steady high-pitched pinging on the windows kept time with my mind’s frantic pace.

Eventually, the waitress came by to see if we needed anything else, and then handed us the dessert menus. After half-heartedly flipping through the pictures of coconut sorbet and tofu cheesecake, I paused and said, “Nat?”

“Mmm hmm?”

“Just promise me you’ll bring me a butter burger.”

Natasha looked up, smiled and said, “It’s a promise.”

On Aging: Muscle Memory

As the years click by, even if I don’t psychologically feel older, my body takes great pleasure in reminding me of my age every now and then. Take last week, for example. Natasha had dubbed 2005 the year of “less talk, more action,” so in keeping with that mantra, she finally started the bowling league she’s been talking about for the past year and a half. She said we all need to get more involved in team sports this year.

I’ve got to admit – I never really considered bowling to be much of a physical sport. Any sport where you can wear jeans and someone else’s shoes, chain smoke, and drink pitchers of beer just never seemed like what I might call strenuous exercise.

But let me quote my body on that subject: “HA!”

After only two games of bowling, I woke up unable to clench my fist, walking with a severe limp, and nearly crippled by lower back pain. Now, a week later, I still find it painful to type these words. It’s quite possible I’ve done permanent nerve damage, and I didn’t even break 100. The problem, however, is that now that we’re in a league, I can’t quit and let my teammates down. We just placed our orders for shirts with our names embroidered on them. Team Cobra Kai needs me!

I’m not exactly sure why we decided on that name, but it might be because I kept yelling “Sweep the leg, Johnny!” whenever the people next to us would get up to bowl. I like my bowling like I like my table tennis: full contact. Some would say that’s unsportsmanlike, but I say, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. You know, because it’s hot in a kitchen. So if you’re sensitive to heat, you’d probably be more comfortable in the living room, or maybe in the den. Would you like me to get you some iced tea?


Some co-workers of mine asked me if I wanted to join them in the “Hustle up the Hancock” event this past Saturday. For the non-Chicagoans, that’s a charity event where you actually pay money to walk up ninety-four flights of stairs to the top of the Hancock Building, but you get free breakfast and a t-shirt if you finish.

I told them that I would love to, had I not already planned on my own charitable event for Saturday – “Hustle up the L stop” – where I walk up one flight of stairs, get on a train, and go to Belmont Avenue to have breakfast and buy t-shirts with Natasha.

When did my body start to give out on me like this? I can’t really mark the exact point in time. I wasn’t always this way. When I was nine, I had the best arm on the softball team. At least I think that’s why they always put me out in left field. And I was on Junior Varsity basketball in middle school, too. Sure, I had to share a jersey with a girl who had scoliosis, but it was all for the greater good of the team. At least I got to wear the jersey during the first half of the game. (That might actually be funny if it weren’t true.)

So I guess somewhere between the ages of 13 and 33, I neglected my inner athlete, which led me to my current squishy state. But I’ve got to admit, getting older does have its perks. Yes, my body may be falling apart. It’s possible that the sound of my hip cracking actually made my cats jump the other night. And I may have to have an 8-lb bowling ball specially drilled out for my huge arthritic knuckles. But one of the most rewarding things about getting older is that no matter how many gutter balls I make, or how low my score may be, I now make enough money to never, ever have to share a jersey again.

On Aging: I Loves Me Mammy

The last time I went to my gynecologist, she told me that I should start getting annual mammograms in the next year or so. At first, I kind of laughed, thinking she was joking, but as she wheeled her stool back and snapped off her latex gloves, there was not even the slightest glimmer of a smile in her face.

“A mammogram? Me? Uh, I’m sorry, maybe you read my age wrong on that chart – that’s a three, not a four.”

“Early detection is the key,” she chided, as she handed me a brochure entitled, Ten Myths About Mammograms. I don’t know about you, but when I curl up in bed to read some myths, I like them to include sons falling in love with their mothers, women with snakes for hair, and people having their livers eaten out each evening by vultures. But tales of breasts being flattened in vices really just don’t spin my wheels. I don’t know, maybe it’s the whole Greek vs. Latin thing.

I guess on some level, I am relieved to know that my breast health will finally be in the hands of a professional, because up until this point, detecting breast cancer was apparently entirely my job. I always dread that question during my annual checkups:

“Now, are you doing your monthly breast exams?”

“Well, I suppose that all depends on how loosely you define the word, ‘exam.’ Maybe a pop quiz, or an open book test every now and then…”

As she sat there stone-faced, I made a mental note to deduct some points from her score due to poor stirrup-side manner. I just feel so darn guilty when she asks me that question. It’s kind of the same feeling I get when the dentist asks me if I floss. My answer is always the same: “Well, I don’t floss as much as I should… three or four times a week, maybe.”

And what I mean by that is, “I flossed three or four times a week for the two weeks prior to this appointment, and now I will drop back down to flossing only after eating corn on the cob or spinach quiche.”

[On a side note, is it just a strange coincidence that all my gynecologists avert their eyes while doing my breast exam, or is that the industry standard to make women feel more comfortable? I mean, I guess it might be a bit disconcerting if they gazed intently into my eyes during the whole procedure, unless dinner and a movie were involved, of course. But I am paying them good money to make sure I get the full works – oil change, fluid checks, fill the tires, and change the air filter – so a glance down every now and then to make sure things are where they’re supposed to be might not be a bad idea. I’m just saying.]

So I guess when all’s said and done, I should probably be looking forward to my first mammogram, when I can finally relinquish this burdensome responsibility to someone with some medical knowledge that didn’t come from WebMD. Well, in the meantime, I’d better start brushing up on my mythology:

Myth #1: Mammograms are painful.
Fact: Although the procedure may cause slight discomfort, it is very brief and the benefits are great!

Hoo boy, I can see this is going to be a real page-turner…

On Aging: A Wrinkle in Time

As children, I’m sure we all remember defiantly laughing and rolling our eyes when our parents would warn us about making funny faces, threatening that they “would stay that way” if we didn’t stop. In my eight-year old naïveté, little did I know that decades later I actually would be paying the price for all my playground-renowned grumpy old man grimaces and tongue-wagging wide grins.

Now, my face – no longer plumped by the elastic collagen of innocence – acts as a form of silly-putty each morning. But instead of replicating brightly colored characters from the funny papers, my face bears the mirror image of my wristwatch, or the seams of my pillow, or my cat’s tail, or whatever unfortunate surface I happened to be laying on overnight. Sometimes I am forced to catch the late train in order to give my skin enough time to finally bounce back to its former shape, lest the local townsfolk think me a deformed freak and revoke my street parking privileges.

Over the past several months, I’ve had three dreams that involved me getting Botox injections. Only one ended badly, with the Botox forming gigantic lumps in my forehead that floated freely beneath the surface of my skin. But still, my wrinkles were gone, so even that dream didn’t turn out all that bad.

This past Christmas, my brother and I were watching TV at our parents’ house and some E! Entertainment special came on about celebrity plastic surgery. I half-jokingly made a comment to my brother like, “Huh. Maybe I should get me some of that Botox,” at which point he looked at me quite seriously and replied, “Yeah, you could probably use a little right there.”

Now, in case this isn’t already clear, let me outline some important points for any of the gentlemen who might be reading this right now. There are a few questions that women ask that should never, under any circumstance, be answered in the affirmative, including, but not limited to:

  • Does this make me look fat?

  • Was she prettier than me?
  • Do you think I should get Botox?

Look, I know this makes me look fat, I’m aware that she’s prettier than me, and yes, I know I should get Botox, but really, how did it benefit you to confirm that for me? Was that a good idea, or a bad idea? It is not a new phenomenon for women to ask questions that can only end in a fight, so you’d think by now people would have learned their lines.

The correct answer to my question is, “What? Don’t be ridiculous! Why on earth would you get Botox? You’re way hotter than any of those plastic-faced anorexic models!”

Okay, wait. The thought of my brother saying that to me just totally skeeved me out, big time. So perhaps the correct answer is to never ask stupid questions like that in the first place, particularly in the presence of the person who used to draw mustaches on your favorite doll (Oh, Red Baby, will you ever forgive me for leaving you in the toy room unattended? I’ll never abandon you again, my sweet transgendered daughter).

As much as I’d like to be able to look you all in the monitor and say that I am appalled at the very idea of injecting botulism bacteria into my face, simply to live up to the beauty standard that Hollywood has set, clearly the fact that I am having recurring pleasant dreams about Botox speaks otherwise. But there’s one thing more powerful than even my feminist ideals that will prevent me from going under the needle anytime soon, and that is the overwhelming fear of a horrific, disfiguring result.

While I don’t consider myself to be someone who constantly yearns for the approval of others in life, for some reason, I have discovered that I strongly seek their approval in death. This is the reason I won’t skydive – truly, it’s not out of any fear of heights, or because I just don’t want to. I think it would be an amazing experience, but not amazing enough to counter my fear of this conversation:

“Oh god. When did it happen? Jenny was so young. Was it a car accident?”

“No, she went skydiving and her parachute got caught up in some electrical wires. It was over quickly.”

“Wait, she was skydiving? Are you kidding me? Why the hell did she go skydiving – she works in marketing!? She’s not even athletic!”

“I… I have no idea. She thought it would be cool, I guess.”

“Cool. Yeah, that’s real cool, all right. I’m sure she looked real cool all tangled up and electrocuted. What an idiot.”

”No kidding. Total moron.”

“You going to the wake?”

“Nah, not for that bonehead.”

“Me neither. Let’s go get a smoothie.”


When I think about the idea of getting Botox, a similar scenario plays through my head, except this time, instead of dying in some power lines, I imagine my face horrifically scarred beyond recognition. I’m not proud to admit it, but it isn’t some moral, Gloria Steinem-esque outrage against agism that prevents me from juicing up – it’s really the fear of having to explain that my deformity was caused by pure unadulterated vanity.

So for now, I’ll continue to take my Vitamin E tablets, drink eight glasses of water a day, and get plenty of rest each night. Oh, and I’m going to see if I can start sleeping on my back from now on, too. Those wristwatch lines are murder on the complexion.

On Aging: Seeing Spots

As another birthday looms near, I find myself approaching my mid-thirties, which, according to my friends, is the time when we finally stop focusing so much on the things we want out of life, and begin convincing ourselves that we never really wanted them in the first place. But for me, each new birthday signals a changing of the guard, of sorts. A time for me to try to pass on something I have learned to a younger generation, so that they might benefit from my squandered youth.

With that in mind, I launch my new feature, On Aging – a series of brief observations on what it means to watch your body fall apart before your very eyes. Enjoy.

Along with an uncontrollable urge to cry at any sports-related movie – even though I hate sports-related movies – my thirtieth year also gave me the gift of vision. Before I turned thirty, I never looked for physical signs of aging, which I suppose is partly because there weren’t all that many to be concerned with.

But magically, as though given the sight of the Oracles, the day after my thirtieth birthday, I looked into the mirror and saw through the mist of youth, revealing colors and lines in my face I had never before witnessed. Recently, I was discussing this phenomenon of self-observation with my friend, Vivian:

“So, this is weird – I thought I found liver spots on the back of my right hand yesterday.”


“Yeah. But then I licked them and realized it was just some melted chocolate.”

“Jenny, why in god’s name would you lick something you suspected to be a liver spot?”

“On the outside chance that it might be chocolate.”