Midlife is a funny time of life, musings on aging from Iceland

Image description: View from inside the car (brrr!). Blue sky, white clouds, snow covered mountains, and yellow beach in Iceland. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Image description: View from inside the car (brrr!). Blue sky, white clouds, snow covered mountains, and yellow beach in Iceland. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Cate and I were chatting the other day about the weirdness of 52. It’s a strange time of life. Consider that person who’s looking at you and talking to you and being really nice. Do they think you’re hot or are they smiling at you because you remind them of their mom? It’s often not clear.

You’re not old enough to be out of the flirting game altogether. (When does that occur anyway? Never, I hope.) But you’re really not sure when you’re included.

Mother and potential object of interest. Those aren’t the only roles for women of course but still those possibilities do seem to colour our interactions with people.

I thought about it the other day when a man offered me a seat on the subway. Really? Should I be charmed? Offended? Amused? I wasn’t sure.

My mind went through all the possibilities. Chivalry? Flirtation? Or plain old deference for the elderly? I don’t think I look wobbly on the subway. But I took the seat, smiled, and thanked him. I’m super nice and polite that way. I joked the other day that I always say “please” when asking Google to find me things. I have to work to stop myself saying thank you.

Back to aging: I’ve been thinking lately about all the lies we tell about aging. According to this chart here, female attractiveness to men peaks at 23.

Women are most attractive to men at about 23. And men’s attractiveness to women seems to get better with age.

We sometimes act as if that’s a number that really matters. But why? Lots of us aren’t that interested in what men think about the way we look. I’m not interested in what strangers have to say about me generally. It’s not a thing that ranks high on my list of things to care about. And I suspect women, even women interested in men, care less about what men in general think, as we get older.

After all, that same chart tells us that life satisfaction peaks at 69, liking one’s body which peaks at 74, and well-being peaks at 82. Things get better, not worse, after 50. See Greetings from the happiness trough.

Why do we make getting older out to be such a bad thing if, from the point of view of subjective well-being, things just get better? Rebecca’s rant which I included in my post about menopause picked up on this same theme. There’s this narrative of misery about women’s lives that we all kind of learn along the way.

Aging is supposed to be horrible. Fading beauty, etc. Even those of us who don’t feel the sting of losing attractiveness in the eyes of random male strangers aren’t off the hook because we’re expected to feel bad. But some of us don’t feel bad at all.

Why might you not care?

A. You never had it in the first place. You’re sufficiently outside mainstream beauty norms that being attractive to generic men isn’t a thing for you. In that case, aging can feel liberating. Now no one your age has it. Finally.

B. You don’t much care what men think. They’re not your thing.

C. You care what some specific male persons think but not generic men on the street.

D. The attention of men has been painful rather than pleasurable on balance (think cat calling and street harassment) and you’re happy to have less of it.

There are many reasons not to care.

All of our lives we’ve been told that aging sucks. But most women I know who are older than me say things are pretty terrific. I keep telling friends in their 30 and 40s that the 50s are so far just fine.

I spent this past week at a conference on Feminist Utopias, in Iceland. While there I got to spend time with a couple of my favourite feminist philosophers, both in their 70s. They’re travelling, doing terrific work in feminist philosophy, and leading lives that seem pretty happy.

Friday night I saw a concert in the series “Music for Lesbians.” It was organized and  headlined by Carol Pope. She’s 70 and has a terrific energetic stage presence.

Maybe it’s time we stop telling the sad story about aging and started listening and learning.

Image description: Here’s me opining about feminist epistemology and open access publishing. My arms are widespread, I’m wearing a long grey “introvert” hoodie, I’m wearing sunglasses and standing on a wooden platform in Iceland. Location: Gullfloss Waterfall.

Image description: Sunset at Skálholt. This is the view from our conference bedroom window. The grounds are yellow. The sky is blue. And the clouds are majestic. There are two buildings, on the left a white historic church and on the right a newer conference structure.

Image description: Sunset at Skálholt. This is the view from our conference bedroom window. The grounds are yellow. The sky is blue. And the clouds are majestic. There are two buildings, on the left a white historic church and on the right a newer conference structure. You can read about Skaholt, the site of our conference, here: http://skalholt.is/3905-2/?lang=en

Menopause can be boring or dramatically awful or something in between

Note: I was busy drafting this post thinking I could talk about my experiences of menopause since I haven’t had a period since the fall. Finally! I’m no longer the woman menopause forgot!  (And yes, I know it’s not officially menopause until it’s been a year. Yep.) However, between first draft and hitting “publish” I started to bleed. Of course.

Surely I can talk about peri-menopause though. And I have this to say, yawn! So far it’s pretty boring. Nothing to report here.

(Okay. There is one thing to report. I had kind of imagined the way menopause worked is that one’s periods gradually end. From 6 days a month to 4 to 2, then every second month. You know, an orderly gradually cessation of all things bloody and crampy. That’s the way it ought to be. If I ran the zoo, as Dr Seuss might say. Instead my periods went from the usual boring kind of thing to wild, extra bloody, extra crampy, and completely unpredictable. It was hard to teach and exercise was challenging and so at my doctor’s advice I got an IUD. Problem solved. Back to extra boring. And I haven’t looked back.)

Boring is not unusual for me. I remember during each pregnancy doctors rhyming off the bad symptoms associated with pregnancy: Swollen ankles? Nope. Heartburn? Nope. Backache? Nope? Basically pregnancy agreed with me and other the warm, happy, fuzzy glow there wasn’t much different about being pregnant. Other than a brief stint of morning sickness of the super convenient variety (I couldn’t cook food or do dishes. I had enough non-pukey time just to sit down and eat quickly.) I walked, biked, and exercised through pregnancy with not much to report other than obvious increase in size. Childbirth was likewise not very dramatic.

So there’s this silence around pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause–these things that some female bodies do. And sure some of it is because its “not supposed to be talked about” but some of it is also because for some of us, it’s dull. How much is there to say really?

In all of these things, it seems obvious, YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY.

So when friends started sharing this piece last week–The Truth is Out There about Menopause— I was surprised. THE truth? Just one?

I didn’t comment. I just ignored it hoping it would go away.

I’m pretty good at avoiding ‘someone is wrong on the internet’ syndrome. I pick my battles.

The part of the piece I liked was about shame.

Jennifer Nadel writes, “There’s also this weird shame. There’s almost a conspiracy of silence around it because obviously being menopausal isn’t quite the same as being hot and young and nubile and sexy. To say out loud “I’m menopausal” feels like saying “I have lost my femaleness,” which obviously isn’t true, but as a result so few of us are really openly talking about it. We’re both in the same book group, and the moment we discovered that everyone else in the group was also going through it, it was just heaven. Whenever women of a certain age gather together, it’s not men or careers they want to talk about, it’s menopause.”

But I was less thrilled with the general tone of the piece which was about all the bad things associated with menopause. Again, the uniformity bugged me. Again, the misery.

Rebecca got it just right I think when she commented,

A post about menopause on a friend’s page this morning got me thinking. All my life I feel like people – very much centrally including other women – have been basically threatening me that my body is going to betray me because of its femaleness. I’ve been told how I will see, just wait for it, my body will get gross and unsexy and low-libido and shapeless and leaky and weak and painful and moody once I am pregnant, no, once I have a kid … no, once I hit 35, no 40, no really it’s once I hit perimenopause, no it’s menopause that will do me in.

I have just realized that I am angry about this. It’s like a constant onslaught of microaggressions designed to undermine my self-trust and my sense of at-homeness in my body. I think it is distinctively gendered … women are supposed to hate and fear our bodies and not trust them, so if we trust and like then well enough now, someone is always ready to tell us how temporary that is.

Now of course plenty of bodies leak and have pain and change shapes at these times and any other time, but there is nothing magical or universal about these changes. Personally, I am basically the same shape and size I was at 19, and my menstrual cycles are the same, and my functionality is the same or better; none of these scary threats has manifested so far. Lucky me, and obviously there is lots of variation, and eventually I will die like everyone else. But I am pissed at being told repeatedly to fear my body and its future, and I am pissed at being asked to orient myself towards inevitable decline, inevitable failure to count as a possible object of sexual desire, etc.

Every body is different. Childbirth and menopause and so on are not magical and they do not come along with any kind of universal shared experience. Let women enjoy their bodies, wherever they are at, in all their strengths and all their frailties and frustrations. Don’t create counterfactual or impending body shame and fear when you can’t manage to generate the actual kind. We are all gonna die eventually. In the meantime, YMMV and YOLO and all that.

Yes, yes, yes.

Also there is this in the news this week: How menopause affects athletic women.

(tl/dr version: The symptoms of menopause are less severe but your race times may be affected.)

Also, menopause seems to be something that only happens to white women with grey hair and scrunched up angry faces according to Google image search. Though I do like the “gun show” photo.

Image description: Google image search results for a search for "menopause." Lots of white white with grey hair, frowning.

Screenshot of Google image search for “menopause” Image result? Lots of white white with grey hair, frowning.

What do you think? Do you think we don’t talk enough about menopause? Do you find such conversations falsely universalizing?

Embracing my growing strength

Red and white printed blanket covering a personBy MarthaFitat55

I’m not a big fan of our winter season. The weather is often horrible, spring seems like it will never arrive, and the multiple layers required to survive the cold make going to the gym a chore.

When the sky is blue, and the snow is soft and fluffy, I can work up the enthusiasm to enjoy a walk or a snowshoe. When it is wet and miserable with sleety snow, I want to curl up under my quilt and not surface until May.

Part of my resistance to winter exercise comes from my fear of falling. I have actually fallen several times, with my first reliable memory being a fall at 14 that resulted in a wicked headache.

I have tumbled over icy stairs (that one within earshot of my mother who heard me use language suitable for blistering paint) and I have skidded across parking lots.

I have also fallen indoors, and while I have been fortunate enough not to experience lasting ill effects, as I grow older, my fear of falling has grown exponentially.

I often ask people if they remember the rubber boots many of us wore as kids, and if they specifically recall how stiff and unyielding the rubber would get as we walked to and from school in January and February. Over time the rubber would crack and the wet would seep in.

That’s how I feel my muscles go in the winter cold: hard, inflexible, and yet ready to shatter at the slightest pressure.

Last year, three of my friends and one of my relatives were laid up with broken bones, all women. Two experienced the breaks as a result of slips and falls on icy sidewalks, thus adding to my fear and resistance.

I shouldn’t be surprised: after all, women are four times more likely to have osteoporosis, and one in five is likely to experience a fracture after age 40. The fact is my fear of falling need not be limited to the winter season, given the data.

Since hiding under a quilt is not really an option I can indulge in, I have looked for ways to reduce my risk of falls. I make sure I have good shoes, grippy sneakers, and sturdy boots. I have learned to walk like a penguin, with my feet pointed out, when going up or down hills and across icy surfaces.

I found some really useful tips here on the BC’s government’s health website. One tip which really stood out for me was eating foods high in calcium and Vitamin D. I had found increasing my fish intake was helping with my arthritis, so I wasn’t too surprised that nutrition could help. I had also long known about the calcium connection for bone health, but was not aware of the importance Vitamin D brings to muscle strength.

Last month, I had reason to be grateful for working on my fitness and nutrition. I had noticed increasing tightness and soreness around the hip joint post training and my trainer had noticed some oddities in my form during a subsequent squat session.

I decided to get checked as I was worried that something new was about to be added to the injury roster. I was somewhat startled to learn that it was the same hip problem. When I asked why the symptoms were different, my physiotherapist said my muscle strength had improved significantly over the past year to compensate for my hip moving out of alignment.

When I thought about the other times my hip joint has shifted, I realized several things. First, the time between injury and the onset of discomfort and pain was usually quite short. This time, it was a little over three weeks before things got really sore. Second, the recovery time post alignment was often quite long, with the pain and stiffness taking as much as three to five weeks to disappear. This time, I was really only uncomfortable for about 48 to 72 hours.

So what has this got to do with my fear of falling? I’m still cautious, but now I have developed my core strength so I am strong enough to reduce the impact. I also know my improved nutrition has helped my muscles recover faster from training, and this is also helpful in dealing with stress and injury.

What this means long term, I am not sure yet. For now, I am happy to continue with the work I am doing with the knowledge that I have made a difference in reducing the effects of injury and speeding up recovery.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

Girlfriend Therapy

My last post was about my online dating travails; it tells the story of me learning to cope with the badness of online dating, while finding the goodness in online dating (including the freedom to be many versions of my sexual self – exciting and healthy, though also quite daunting at times).

This post is going to be about something related but very different: finding the time and the space to make new female friends in middle age.

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Friends in middle age: Sam, me, and Susan – with a couple of terrific guys on the Three Ports Tour 2016.

Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear: for me, this issue is intimately related (just like the online dating issue) to my health and wellness, as well as to my fitness. When I think about how I might be fit for purpose in this world – able to carry on in my job, to carry on caring for my parents and my dog, to carry on managing the expectations placed on me by all the stakeholders in my world, and ALSO, FIRST, to carry on taking good care of ME – I think about a lot more than riding my bike or rowing or yoga. All those things matter. But so much more matters, too.

This past weekend was the Women’s March all over the world, and especially in Washington. My colleague (and sometime-contributor here) Alison went to Washington; she filled me in and I was filled with envy. Catherine blogged on the weekend about not going; like her, I made an alternative choice. It wasn’t without conflict, but it was absolutely for me about self-care. I realised I couldn’t march, because I wasn’t in a place to give that much at that moment. So instead I made a joyously selfish and entirely feminist choice: to take care of myself, by reaching out to another, wonderful woman in my life.

I was incredibly moved by Susan’s last post here on the blog, about her daughter and their recent experience shopping for clothes. I decided, after reading it, to send Susan an email thanking her for it and describing how I’d connected to it. Susan and I have been riding a few times before, thanks to Sam, but we’ve not hung out. A few times I have wished we could: Susan’s canoe trips sound TDF, and her dog Shelby is a sweetheart. So this time I was bold: I told Susan what her post had meant to me, and I asked if we could maybe hang out some time.

Susan wrote the kindest email back. In it, she said (and I’m going to take a chance here and say she would not mind me quoting this to you!):

This is just the loveliest thing. I mean, how often do middle age women get emails from other women saying “I want to be your friend?” Possibly never until right now.

And you know, she’s right. We hit a certain age (for me it was my early 20s) and realise that we’re growing apart from the community of young women we’ve (if we are lucky – and I know not all of us are) become attached to and reliant on. Some of us get long-term boyfriends or girlfriends, and our dynamics shift. Then we go to college or uni, sometimes far from one another. Babies come. Or careers blossom. We move around, away. We connect online a bit, see each other sometimes. In the process, of course, we make other friends, but if we are in long-term relationships or have families at home to care for, it becomes harder and less of a priority to connect with those close friends from our past, or even those new friends around the corner. Nuclear family-think sets in – another word for (hetero)normativity.

When I left Canada for a new job in England in 2012, I left a clutch of wonderful female friends behind. I missed them like hell! And when I came back, in late 2014, I left an equally fabulous posse of wonderful women once more. I ache with the loss of them in my daily life. We connect on Skype, but it’s not the same. Even with my best girls just up the highway in Toronto now, it’s hard to stay connected. There are loads of demands on our time, many children now among us, and a two hour drive is a two hour drive…

Last Sunday, I made that drive – to meet up with Susan and walk our dogs along the glorious trails near her house on the Niagara escarpment. We shared a bit about our pasts – partners, experiences, losses – that we didn’t know about one another before. We talked about work and kids. We talked about mental health struggles. We talked about the fog, the sumac, the gorgeous spaces all around us. We shared the pleasures of ambulatory, sensory therapy. We kept on top of the dogs! We got home and Susan gave me a cup of green tea in the most hilarious mug I have ever seen. Then Shelby did some genuinely wicked canine tricks for me.

We agreed we needed to do it again.

shit_happens_coffee_mug

This is not the mug Susan offered me. Hers is substantially funnier.

I’ve realised recently that I’ve been in the process, for 18 months or so now, of remaking my life. Returning from abroad to an old job and a much-loved house but a very new living and working situation has been at turns familiar and shattering. I’ve not got my bearings yet. I’m still figuring stuff out: who I want to be in the second half of my life; who I’d like to have around me as I grow old; what I want to give my body now, and what I want it to give me in return; who I’d like to have sex with, and who I’d like to spend my nights with; where I want to live – REALLY live. At a distance from some of the people and places that have deeply mattered to me thus far in my life, I’ve at times felt helpless and bereft in the face of these questions.

But I don’t need to be. Because there are so many amazing, strong, compassionate, loving – and did I mention STRONG? – women around me. Like Susan.

Thank god for us all!

Kim

Fun facts about life after 50, gender fluidity and femme footwear choices, and balancing all the injuries

I love this Louis CK thing about midlife injuries and physio and his “incurable shitty ankle,” especially the bit where the doctor tells him that it’s just this thing you now have to do for the rest of your life. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry. But it feels real to me. It feels very real to my complicated knees. See Bad knee news for the back story.

But I think he needs to redo it for us over 50s because the real complications come when it’s not just one injury but two or three. Knees, back, and feet anyone?

My plantar fasciitis is back. (Did you know it’s also called “policeman’s heel”? That was news to me too. Thanks Google.)

I’ve got a good doctor on the case, Colin Dombroski. See his book on plantar fasciitis here. He’s the foot guy at my university’s sports medicine clinic. I like that clinic a lot since their goal is to keep people active and moving and doing the things that we love.  See Aging and the myth of wearing out your joints.

One thing that hadn’t occurred to me though was that my injuries might be in competition. The orthotics that help with knee pain might not be so good for my plantar fasciitis. So I now have one set for everyday use and another set in my running shoes. The everyday orthotics are in these fancy new Blundstones, and my lovey favourite Fluevogs are on the back burner or for limited party use only for while.

My Blundstones look like this:

Blundstone Super 550 Series Boot

My Fluevog Odettes (“an homage to every misrepresented Witch of the West there ever was”) look like this:

Odette

Now my life, my personal style, my gender roles have room for both the Blundstone and the Fluevogs. They might just represent the range from “sporty femme” (as my friend Ingrid once dubbed me) to “party femme.” But for this winter, I’ll mostly be the Blundstone person. That is, when I’m not wearing bike shoes, ski boots, skates, or running shoes.

(I’m way off topic here but if this stuff interests you, you might want to read my papers Fashion and Sexual Identity, or Why Recognition Matters in Fashion – Philosophy for Everyone: Thinking with Style edited by  Jessica Wolfendale and Jeanette Kennett  and “Those Shoes Are Definitely Bicurious”: More Thoughts on the Politics of Fashion (in Dennis Cooley and Kelby Harrison (ed.), Passing/Out: Sexual Identity Veiled and Revealed (2012).)

Thanks Alice, for this!

Okay, seriously now, back to sports injuries. I’m stepping back from fashion, and gender, and shoes.

So there’s this tension between the knee injury, which isn’t really as Louis CK gets right, an injury at all, and the recent flare up of heel pain. It’s not a knee injury because it’s more the way my knees are for the rest of my life. They won’t get better. The exercises don’t make them better. They allow me to keep moving. Thank you sports doctors and physiotherapists.

But that’s not all of it. There’s also a tension between heel pain and my much loved standing desk. See Celebrating my standing desks. If I stand too much it makes the heel pain worse, but if I sit too much I hurt my back. So I’m back and forthing more than I usually do between sitting and standing.  Let’s just say there’s a lot of moving and stretching and changing of footwear in my life right now.

I’m hoping this is me come spring!

The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go

graveyard overlooking Sydney Harbour

The Waverley Cemetary, Sydney, Australia http://www.bonditocoogeewalk.com.au/waverly-cemetery/

But when?

When would you go if you had the choice?

I put the question to the students in my feminism and death course this week and I was surprised at their answers.

I gave them the scenario sketched out here, How Long Would You Live if You Could Choose ANY Number of Years? Here’s how it works, roughly: You get ten minutes to choose a number and that’s the number of years you live. You can choose infinity but once you do, that’s it.

I was struck that all the students chose natural life span or 100 or 120 years. I picked 1000. (Or 500 to 1000.) Best of all would be infinity with choice but the options in the Wait but Why scenario (linked above) don’t include that. The difference in perspectives was interesting. They were shocked at my long list of things I’d do if I had time..second and third PhDs, for example. New sports I’d learn. Dancing! All the dancing. And languages. And visit all the places. From their point of view, just starting their adult lives, the decades look long. They see the years stretching out ahead and imagine themselves tired and satisfied with all they’ve done by 80.

I tried it again on Facebook with the same results. Young friends chose natural life span. Friends my age went for the really big numbers, mostly.

I know that exercise won’t make me live forever. See Fighting aging? Why the battle language? Why not aging well? But I do hope to live for as long as I can.

How about you? If you had a magic wand what number would you choose?

You can follow my death page on Facebook.

My Facebook friends and my students also generated a death themed playlist on Spotify.

Into the Woods Part Deux (Guest Post)

canoe head me

Canoe Head Me

 

There have been a bunch of posts on this blog lately that have to do with canoe camping. We are mostly Canadian around here and it’s our precious summer so that’s not really a surprise. My post last month was about canoe camping and making it hard on purpose. I wouldn’t normally post yet again about paddling but the experience of this trip compels me so here it is.

Once again, I went into the lakes and rivers and woods with three dear friends, my 72 year old mother, my 15 year old daughter and my perfect canoe camping dog. I have had a long think about what perspective I want to bring to this experience. I need it to be more than a narrative of what happened because going into the back country in the way that we do is beyond mere narrative, beyond mere activity or fun times. It’s elemental and transformative. It doesn’t matter which trip or who I go with or what happens. I come out of the park different than when I went in and everyone else does too.

But this trip, what about this trip? What is the reason my chest clenches in joy when I think about it and everything we endured, experienced and created? I know I love the self containment. Bring everything in, eat some of it, bring everything out. I know I love the physical challenge of lifting heavy packs and canoes. I love the logistics. I love the care taking that I engage in by planning and executing whether that is setting up a tent, a hammock or a meal. I love helping other people to do the same. Even when they make me nuts, I love to make it work.

That’s not it though. Something else was going on. It was the waning days of summer and the evenings were cool, the angle of the sun generating that familiar melancholy, the leaves whispering their coming end in the night wind.There were conversations around the fire that were silly and irreverent. There were others that were deep and somewhat sad. There were moments when a therapist, a professor, a PhD consultant and and engineer discussed philosophy and queer theory while my mom and daughter listened in. That was a moment of intensity for me and I know in retrospect that was because it was both revealing to my mother what I had become and to my daughter what she could be. My mother got lost in memory on one portage and spoke so beautifully to all of us about the time my late father had me on his shoulders while my brother was on my mom’s, walking by a rapids in the BC interior. “It seems like yesterday” she said. I cried because it did and it was, just yesterday I was small and full of potential. Today I am grown and growing stronger, more solid in me with every step and paddle stroke.

Three generations

Three Generations

 

I see we are at this perfect juncture and I am the fulcrum between my mother and my daughter. My friends stand by me in this middle place, this middle age, where we can still learn from the elder how to be our better selves and show the younger the many many ways she can be herself in this complicated world. She didn’t know we were teaching her. My mother’s feminism evident in her refusal to stop moving or be cowed or become small in her waning years. She still pushes. Me and my friends manifesting our articulate and enacted feminism, the way we speak our minds, live our lives, love how and who we want, give back, keep pushing. It’s not utopia or some Algonquin version of Paradise Island, but hell it was close.

Next year we may do it again, different people, different constellations perhaps, but we will likely emerge from the liminal space in the forest changed, stronger, more expansive and powerful. That is why I go into the lakes and rivers and woods and why I will write about what they teach me over and over again.

Happy paddling.

Best camping dog ever

Best Camping Dog Ever