Monday, March 24, 2008

Senior Romance? Yes! A Book Review

A review of One Last Dance (Calliope, 2005) by Mardo Williams, with his daughters, Kay Williams & Jerri Williams Lawrence.

This is a romance novel, an "elder lit" romance novel, if such a category existed. Perhaps it should. I applaud older authors (Williams was 92 when he wrote this book), or any authors, for that matter, who treat elders as real people rather than stereotypes and consider them worthy subjects for fiction.

Main characters Morgan and Dixie meet contentiously in an accidental physical collision outside the Whispering Pines senior residence. Morgan, 89, is considering moving to the independent living section, and Dixie, 79, works there part time.

All the usual problems of old age are present: bad previous family relationships, clouded pasts, suspicions, heath and financial issues, loneliness, hopes, plans, disappointments. At 89 and 79, Morgan and Dixie carry much more emotional baggage than most romance novel characters--but fortunately, more spirit and knowledge, much of it experienced-based, as well.

As they tentatively and gradually fall in love, Morgan and Dixie face their challenges together with the eventual help of Morgan's long-lost grandson. Youth and age combine for a positive outlook toward uncertain futures.

My pessimistic side tells me that this book's ending is unrealistic, yet we all can, and should, hope that our dreams will come true if we keep trying. The positive message overshadows doubts.

This skillfully-written book by a former journalist should be required reading for everyone involved in elder caregiving and everyone contemplating the issue of aging. It is honest, informative, and entertaining, a pleasure to read.

The book includes a Reading Group Guide which would seem to make it an excellent choice for Senior--and Boomer--book clubs.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Inspiring Quote for Elders

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

Edith Wharton (thanks to Ronni Bennett's blog "TIme Goes By.")

Friday, March 21, 2008

Another Book Review

Check out my review of Susan Breen's novel The Fiction Class (Plume, 2008) on my other blog, "Write your Life!"

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lessons From a 50-Something Actress: A Book Review

I've generally avoided reading and reviewing celebrity memoirs. I've dismissed them as mostly ghost-written "puff pieces." However, the fates seemed to conspire to send me a publisher's review copy of Kathleen Turner's Send Yourself Roses (Springboard, 2007) just after I happened to see the movie Serial Mom (1994), starring Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston, on the Lifetime TV channel.

It's a bizarre film, but I appreciated its satire on "celebrity-ness" and warped values. I was impressed by Turner's skill in handling a strangely comic role. I turned to her book, noting that rather than an unknown ghost writer, it had an openly acknowledged and appreciated collaborator, Turner's friend Gloria Feldt. I read the book, and I'm glad I did.

Kathleen Turner's fame began with the role of Matty Walker in the then-shocking film Body Heat (1981) and has continued through the role of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on stage in New York and London and on tour, beginning in 2005. In between came many film and stage roles, including the daring Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate in London, Toronto, and New York.

What makes this book most interesting to me is its apparent honesty and outspokenness: the good and the bad (as in reviews, co-stars, habits, etc.) are included.

We see the beautiful Kathleen Turner berated for getting fat when she was unwilling to admit to taking prescribed steroids for her rheumatoid arthritis. We see her temporarily made helpless by that disease and finally partially overcoming it. We see her fighting her alcoholism; we see her as wife and mother, her eventual separation from her husband after a long marriage.

In short, this book shows an intelligent, courageous woman, now in her fifties, who, despite her fame and success, faces many of the same challenges as the rest of us aging women.

Like most of us, Turner has faced knee replacement surgery and other medical treatments, figure changes, the inability to wear high heels. Unlike us, for her, almost every move has been of interest to the press. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, "Kathleen Turner in her designer evening dress, Harry Winston jewels, and clogs" was apparently big news. Like us, Turner volunteers: for Meals-on-Wheels, People for the American Way, and Planned Parenthood, among other organizations.

This book is filled with lessons that extend beyond the acting profession: chapter titles include "Speak in Your Own Voice," "Stake Your Claim and Make Your Stand," "Let Your Passion Embrace Your Talent," and perhaps most important for Kathleen Turner, "Send Yourself Roses": "Why should I wait and hope that someone else will send me roses? . . . If no one does, I won't have to be blue. . . . I will provide for my emotional needs just as I provide for my material needs. . . . You have to celebrate yourself."

We can all admire Kathleen Turner's spirit. As she says, "There will always be more to learn as long as you are alive."

Postscript, 3/20: I received a kind thank you from Gloria Feldt for my review. It feels good to be noticed!

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, March 15, 2008

More on Later Acts

Grandad, of the Irish blog Head Rambles, makes some interesting points about retirement. Check out today's post:

Frank McCourt's Later Acts

It's refreshing to find a well-known author, light-years above me but in a sense a kindred spirit, writing about a topic I care about. I reviewed fellow septuagenarian Frank McCourt's book Teacher Man favorably here on September 8, 2006 (see the blog archives or click on "Book Reviews" under "Labels" on the right), and of course I enjoyed reading McCourt's first big success, Angela's Ashes, earlier.

Last Sunday, I found McCourt's "We All Can Have Second Acts (& Third)" in the March 9 issue of the Parade Sunday supplement. The author begins by quoting an even better-known author, F. Scott Fitzgerald: "There are no second acts in American lives." Since Fitzgerald died long ago at age 44, he had no chance to encounter the realities of aging in the 21st century.

Like me, McCourt learned, after years of teaching, that writing was what he really wanted to do, so he published the best-selling Angela's Ashes at age 66, became famous, and continued his next act as a writer. Counting his life of dead-end jobs before teaching, writing is his third act.

"The world was shocked to learn that I was 66--and wrote a best seller," says McCourt. He adds, toward the end of his article, "No matter how long you live, you have stories to tell, and nestling in each one there may be a nugget of wisdowm. Dreams come with tremendous energy, with shimmering horizons. What else is there to do to head off the Conestoga wagon of the soul?"

Here's an ally who agrees with me about the benefits of writing and the possibility of second and third acts in life. This is a different age than F. Scott Fitzgerald's. In case you missed Frank McCourt's article, you can read it on line:

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Sad Senior Tale

I recently received this email message from my brother:

"They were a couple alone, estranged from their only child, and in rapidly declining health. Everyone that knew them marveled at their mutual love; after more than 50 years of marriage their deep affection and mutual respect was obvious to all. Early this morning the lady shot her husband, called the police, and before they could arrive, shot herself.

"Murder or mercy killing, no matter; these two elderly people were apparently discarded by society and left to deal with their pain as they could. This happened in a small town here in Southern Utah and I find it unimaginably sad.

"Yes, sometimes it helps to write things down as you are wont to advocate."

I assume that this "downer" message is my brother's way of expressing his compassion and his feelings about growing old; he, too, lives alone, and as we've aged, we've communicated much more.

I don't know what conclusions to draw from this awful murder-suicide. I haven't checked for further details yet. Was the couple too proud to ask for help? Was no help available? Did they fail to prepare for the inevitable decline of old age? What were their circumstances, and what were their choices, if any?

I agree with my brother that the situation is unimaginably sad.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Routines: We Need Them

Busy workers near retirement sometimes fantasize about their coming freedom from routine and responsibility. I did that too, but for some of us elders, a little bit of freedom and relaxation goes a long way.

I just realized how important it is for me, as a senior who lives alone, to have some routine, some plan, something to look forward to. Perhaps it's just me, but I seem to need some sort of daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual activities to keep me busy and happy. Most of these represent notations in my yearly planner. Each time I decide to give up some regular activity, I change my mind. I can't stand the sight of a blank day, week, or month in my book (well, a few blank days are all right).

This came to mind today as I was writing my Poem-a-Day for my other blog, "Write your Life!" It may be a crazy thing to do, and I'm using a crazy, demanding format (the rictameter), but I love doing it! I love to write, anyway, and this sometimes takes the place of journal writing for me. It's easier than thinking of a new blog post every day for each of my blogs. The strange thing is that those little poems are very good reflections of my daily life.

My weekly routine involves volunteering at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thursday mornings. That's often a quiet morning at the information desk, but I still enjoy my observation point in the beautiful marble-and-mosaic south lobby. It is sometimes hard to get there in the winter, but I do it.

Two other routines involve four opera matinees per season and three Shakespeare plays at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I go to the opera alone, but I sometimes talk to interesting people there. For the plays, two friends pick me up and drive me to Navy Pier. It's always wonderful to see my friends, and the plays are always good. Yesterday it was Othello.

My main annual routine is a long trip. Of course there's also my annual holiday trip to visit relatives. and I sometimes take shorter trips to conferences as well. Travel is getting harder because of my arthritic knees, but I'm still trying. Last year I visited Ireland, and I'm looking forward to South Africa next month. Don't dismiss the idea of travel if you can afford it, even if you must travel alone as I do (I'm not really alone; I travel with a Grand Circle Travel group). It's easy to scoff at group travel when you're young, but it surely makes things easier for us elders.

My advice after nine years of retirement is this: Develop a routine; that's not the same as being in a rut, as long as you enjoy what you do. Your routine is probably not much like mine, but keep exploring. That's the best way to face aging and retirement, especially alone.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, March 07, 2008

Senior Self-Reliance and Independence

"Widow's lack of independence after 5 years burdens her children." This is the headline for Amy Dickenson's "Ask Amy" column in the March 6 Chicago Tribune. It seems that when their mother was widowed five years ago, twelve siblings collaborated on figuring out what she should do after selling her house. They decided that she should buy a condo.

The problem is that the mother made clear that she didn't want to live alone, so the "children" agreed that they would rotate the job of staying with her overnight, seven nights a week. The strain on the siblings and their families is evident, according to the son-in-law who wrote, "Worn Out in New England." After five years of this, he wonders if there isn't a better way.

I'm not sure "Worn Out in New England's" letter is real (twelve children, all cooperating?) If the letter is real, that part of the story is amazing. However, as an outsider, a senior with no children at all, I'm tempted to ask these questions:

1. How old is this mother? She's described as fairly healthy, still walking every day, and still driving.

2. Why, if, as the letter says, "The family is worn out and wants things to change," will "no one speak up"?

3. Does such extreme martyrdom still exist? If so, is it really commendable?

4. Here's the main question: What is the mother's opinion on all of this? Has anyone asked?

As a childless senior widow who has lived alone, mostly in a condo, for eight years now, I find the whole situation puzzling. Having constant and every-changing overnight guests, no matter how beloved, would drive me crazy.

Assuming that the mother is of sound mind, why do her children need to make living decisions for her? Is this part of a dangerous trend: well-intentioned younger people deciding what to do with "the old folks"?

Whatever happened to self-reliance? A woman with the strength to raise twelve children surely should be able to make her own decicisions. Again, has anyone asked?

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Blogging: More Exercise for the Brain

At left: Grandad's award for Head Rambles.

People still occasionally ask me questions such as, "What's a blog?" and "Why start a blog?" I've answered such questions on both of my own blogs, but it's a matter I return to from time to time.

In short, blogging involves writing, which in turn involves thinking or exercising the brain. Blogging also provides an easy means of connection with far-flung friends and relatives who may be interested in your thoughts and activities. It is a democratic means of expression that does not depend on editors. Anyone can blog, and it generally costs nothing. Of course it seldom pays in the monetary sense, either. That's all right with me.

This train of thought came from this morning's reading of Grandad's post on his Head Rambles blog.

Discussing the Irish Blog Awards, where he was a co-winner (with Grannymar) in the Personal Blog category, Grandad writes,
"There is a lot of talk at the moment about Irish blogging. With the events of last weekend, I suppose that is natural. I have seen accusations that the Blog Awards were nothing more than a self congratulatory exercise in mutual back slapping where bloggers betray their very nature - that of a solitary semi-anonymous author typing in the back bedroom. A very fair comment. I agree with it entirely. But I would also say there is nothing wrong with that."

Grandad goes on to say, "Bloggers, in general, do it for the fun of it. It is a personal thing. Some will blog to showcase their business, or to pass on their expertise in some field or other. Others do it to showcase their talents, be it photography, poetry or writing. I don’t think there are many who deliberately set out to influence people. I rant about the nanny state and how wrong I think it is. If I influence people, then I am delighted, but basically all I am doing is stating a personal opinion."

Few blogs qualify as deathless prose or great art, and some of them strike me as either empty or silly, or both. Even the best may have their low moments. However, as an advocate of writing for all, especially seniors, I agree with Grandad: blogging is, indeed, a personal thing. If you're looking for a way to express your thoughts, begin a blog. If you want to see what others are saying, read blogs.

To read the rest of what Grandad has to say, go to

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Thinking and Creating to Slow the Aging Process: Exercise for the Brain

In my previous post I mentioned the "Five Behaviors Linked to Healthy Life Past 90." They are non-smoking, weight management, blood pressure control, exercise, and avoiding diabetes. This came from an article in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Of course we should all do our best to heed this advice, difficult though it may be for some.

Speaking not as an expert, but as a person enduring the aging process, I want to emphasize the health of the mind. I'll call it the "Sixth Behavior Linked to Healthy Life." Past 90? Perhaps, but of course this process must begin much earlier. I'll call it "Excercise for the Brain."

I retired about nine years ago, and my husband died less than a year later. I've had a lot of time to think about aging, routine or the absence of it, and keeping active, both physically and mentally. Have I done everything right? No, but I'm now doing my best.

Retirement, and yes, my husband's passing, gave me nearly complete freedom. I had no real responsibilities, no regular schedule, no reason to do much of anything. I became an expert in relaxing. I read. I traveled. Life wasn't bad, but something was missing. I was depressed. I'm the kind of person who needs routines and challenges. I've been accused of a tendency to become a hermit. I've never been an especially friendly, outgoing person. I have no children, no family nearby, few friends.

I tried part-time teaching for a while, but being the "low woman" on a bureaucratic totem pole didn't suit me. I enjoyed teaching, but somehow, the generation gap was too large. My students' lack of motivation got to me.

As anyone who has read either of my books knows, what I finally found was writing, something I'd always enjoyed but seldom practiced. I am not and never expect to become a well-known, best-selling author, but the benefit is in the writing itself. That't what I'm leading up to. Finding a "passion" and keeping an active mind may be as important as any of the five behaviors listed in that article, and I've been trying to help others do as I've done.

I reaize that not everyone wants to write, but I wish that everyone would try it. That's why I come up with my crazy writing challenges. My other blog, "Write your Life!" is filled with writing prompts and assignments, the same ones included in my book Seniorwriting and more. I'm not sure how many people are following my advice; only a few have responded. However, I like to think that there are "closet writers" out there writing for their minds' sake, regardless of the quality or success of their writing.

My main conclusion about retirement so far is that exercise for the brain is the number one health requirement. Of course writing is not the only brain exercise. Take continuing education classes in new subjects that interest you. Art history? Oil painting? Digital photography? There are endless possibilities.

If you're willing to give writing a try, here are my two latest challlenges:

Write your Life story in Six Words

Write a short poem every day in March, 2008

Most of ny writing efforts are on line for the world to see. So far, few people have been impressed, but that's all right. Right now I'm doing better at exercising my brain than at exercising my body, but spring is on the way! As has been said before, aging is not for the weak (in either mind or body).

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Phot0: Rodin's "The Thinker"