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Archive for the ‘Judith Viorst’ Category

I feel that aging, like most things in life, is best approached with preparation.  Lots and lots of preparation.  That may mean exercise and skin care regimes, visioning and bucket lists, but it also means reading about those who have gone before to arm yourself with knowledge of what to expect.

Judging by How Did I Get to Be Forty…& Other Atrocities by Judith Viorst, I should be prepared for an intense volume of neuroses to set in over the next five years. 

Viorst has been chronicling the trials of aging in verse since publishing It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty (one of my favourite Persephone titles) way back in 1968.  Now ninety, she has faithfully added a volume to mark each decade and while I look forward to the pensioner years, the trials of being forty held the dual appeal of being both a) closest to my actual age and b) published in 1976, making it perfect reading for this week’s 1976 Club.

I truly love It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty so had high hopes for this, but was left entertained but indifferent.  The galloping rhymes of the earlier volume are harder to find here, as is the humour.  The poems feel bleaker; there is no longer the sense that you can laugh off the fears and frustrations of the speaker.  The signs of aging have become unavoidable and adultery or divorce – now more potent since friends have experienced them first hand – are tragedies waiting to befall her rather than the neurotic fancies of a younger woman.

Cheerful stuff. 

But there is fun to be had!  Squandered potential is more comfortable territory and more easily mined for laughs (and relatability) in “Facing the Facts”:

I’m facing the fact that
I’ll never write Dante’s Inferno
Or paint a Picasso
Or transplant a kidney or build
An empire, nor will I ever
Run Israel or Harvard,
Appear on the cover of Time,
Star on Broadway, be killed
By a firing squad for some noble ideal,
Find the answer
To racial injustice or whether God’s dead
Or the source
Of human unhappiness,
Alter the theories of Drs.
S. Freud, C.G. Jung, or A. Einstein,
Or maybe the course
Of history,
In addition to which
I am facing the fact that
I’ll never compose Bach cantatas,
Design Saint Laurents,
Advise presidents, head U.S. Steel,
Resolve the Mideast,
Be the hostess of some major talk show,
Or cure the cold,
And although future years may reveal
Some hidden potential,
Some truly magnificent act that
I’ve yet to perform,
Or some glorious song to be sung
For which I’ll win prizes and praise,
I must still fact the fact that
They’ll never be able to say,
“And she did it so young.”

Having recently participated in a frankly mind-boggling pub conversation about diamond cuts and go-to jewelers, I also found “College Reunion” alarmingly easy to relate to, as the speaker marvels at the women she and her old school friends have turned into:

…we’ve all turned into women who know genuine in jewelry and
                Authentic in antiques and real in fur.
And the best in orthopedists for our frequently recurring
Lower back pain.

And we’ve all turned into women who take cabs instead of buses
                And watch color, not the black and white, TV,
And have lawyers, gynecologists, accountants, dermatologists,
                Podiatrists, urologists, internists, cardiologists,
                Insurance agents, travel agents, brokers, ophthalmologists,
And no ideal how we all turned into these women.

To be fair, I have always been this woman (I was very proud of my Rolodex full of business cards when I was 12) so there is little to marvel at for me.  But, to my friends’ shame, I still don’t know much about diamonds.  

The sharpest poem in the bunch (and the one with the strongest rhyming scheme – it’s so effective when used well!) is “The Good Daughter”, where the speaker tells of her dutiful cousin Elaine and Elaine’s no-good yet inexplicably preferred brother Walter:

The boys Elaine went with were all that her folks
And their gin club and swim club expected.
(The girls Walter went with her folks only prayed
That he wouldn’t come home from infected.)

Like It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty – and I imagine the subsequent volumes – How Did I Get to Be Forty… & Other Atrocities is best as a record of the era and culture that produced it.  The ideals of the 70s are on display, as the speaker longs to be “The Sensuous Woman” (“Beneath my beige knit (polyester) such cravings will smolder/That Uncle Jerome, if he heard, would pass out from the shame”), wishes she had something other than “drop-out Buddhist bisexual vegetarian Maoist children”, and begs someone to put a stop to her endless self-improvement programs (including Primal Scream Therapy and Consciousness Raising).  It’s a fun way to pass a little time (a very little – it’s an extraordinarily thin book) but hopefully not a dependable guide for me of what’s to come. 

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I don’t read poetry.  I want to, I try to, but my success rate is embarrassingly low.  My form teacher in Grades 7 and 8 was a very serious Byron devotee, so much so that she wrote a book about him (Byron Tonight: A Poet’s Plays on the Nineteenth Century Stage by Margaret Howell).  We were even conscripted into a letter-writing campaign for the conservation of Newstead Abbey.  Being twelve years old, we had no interest or knowledge of Byron and I can’t say that the frankly odd associations from that period have ever disappeared.  The Romantics in general are not for me, I haven’t been able to stomach Tennyson since I was an overly romantic preteen, and Beat poetry leaves me cold.  There have been a few exceptions: Dorothy Parker most notably, but my prejudice against the form remains.

However, after reading Verity’s review last week, I knew I had to give It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst a go and I’m so glad I did.  The edition I was able to obtain from the library was not a lovely Persephone one but an ultra-retro, orange and black one from 1970 (for ‘retro’, read ‘hideous’).  Even that was not able to mar my enjoyment!

It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty is a short book of deeply domestic poems, dealing with very personal struggles to adjust to life as a wife and mother.  They are hilarious.  Dated at times, yes (oh tranquilizers, your days are long gone), but the essentials, the things that make the poems so touching and recognizable, do not change.  The fear of moving to the suburbs and losing your identity as an urbane city-dweller?  More than covered, beginning with “The Suburbs Are Good for the Children.”  The mother who, even after you’re married, keeps reminding you about that nice bachelor she knows, who is so much preferable to you spouse?  That’s Freddie of course, universally known as “A Good Catch.”

And even though they made me laugh out loud, many of the poems also resonated emotionally, like “Married Is Better”, as I am still the bachelor-girl who, deep in her heart, believes that “married is better”:

And married is better
Than the subway plus a crosstown bus every morning,
And tuna on toasted cheese bread, no lettuce, at Schraff’s,
And a bachelor-girl apartment with burlap and foam rubber and a few droll touches like a Samurai sword in the bathroom,
And going to the movies alone,
And worrying that one morning you’ll wake up and discover you’re an older woman,
And always projecting wholesome sexuality combined with independence, femininity, and tons of outside interests,
And never for a minute letting on
That deep in your heart you believe
Married is better.

Whether you enjoy poetry or, like me, are deeply skeptical of it, I urge you to give this volume a try.  It’s very short but delightful and was immediately added to my “To Purchase” list.  Me.  Buying a book of poetry.  The mind boggles.

I couldn’t resist ending this post without an excerpt from my perhaps my favourite poem in the book, “True Love”:

It is true love because
I put on eyeliner and a concerto and make pungent observations about the great issues of the day
Even when there’s no one here but him,
And because
I do not resent watching the Green Bay Packer
Even though I am philosophically opposed to football,
And because
When he is late for dinner and I know he must be either having an affair or lying dead in the middle of the street,
I always hope he’s dead…

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.

 

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