Tales From A Middle-Aged Marriage

I have a weak spot for sap and sloppy sentimentality, especially when it comes to music. I mean, truly. I get misty just thinking about Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So you can imagine how fraught with emotion my middle-aged self was last week when John Legend’s All of Me came up on my son’s Spotify playlist. It’s one of those songs you hear and think, Jesus, I want someone to write a song like that about me. One of those songs full of vocal yearning, embodying those feelings of early love when the sun rose and set with the person you were falling for. When you laid yourself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am and the other person said, I do.

All your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. 

You know what you never hear songs about? People who have been married for seventeen years.

There are lots of songs and movies and stories about falling in love, about that first flush of passion. And then?

And then we sort of skip ahead to the sweet, almost platonic, romance of old age. We look on in wonder at elderly couples who have settled into some sort of understated love where you’ve almost fused together into one being, two turtles sharing a shell.

What you almost never hear about is the bridge between those two things. How you got from one to the other.

You never hear songs about the quiet ferocity of middle-aged love.

You never see movies about couples who have been together for a few decades, unless it’s about the problems they face or hurdles they’ve overcome.

I guess songs about sitting next to your spouse on the couch night after night on your respective laptops and separate vacations just aren’t catchy. Maybe it’s hard to find words to rhyme with mid-life crisis, menopausal, and middle-aged spread?

But there should be more songs and stories a movies about it, because the truth is, falling in love is easy.

Staying in love is hard.

We tend to completely gloss over couples who have been quietly and fiercely keeping the flames of love under their relationship burning. It’s not really sexy, is it, to think of the regular maintenance that goes into keeping a marriage going. Far easier to focus on the rush of fire you get when the kindling and newspaper goes whoosh-all smoke and bright flame. Or to feel the pang of emotion when the fire is slowly dying, nothing but embers in the grill.

No one wants to read about forty yeas of buying logs and wadding up newspapers and for Christ’s sake, I did it last time it’s your turn and oh, shit, it’s nearly gone out we need to do something fast.

But of course it’s more than that. I can’t tell you how  many times I look across the room and see my husband and catch my breath. Or when I listen to him tell a joke, or recount a story, and want to reach out and touch him. How safe I feel in my life, in my love, and even in my rage. I know that when I lose my way, he’s there. And I know that sometimes, when I need to find the way myself, he’s waiting at the end. Recently I’ve taken to calling him my thunder shirt, because  after 17 years of marriage I finally realized I sleep better when he is next to me. It’s like he keeps me weighted and tethered, even in my dreams.

Take that, young love.

After seventeen years of marriage, we still have things to talk about. Granted, sometimes we talk about how we can’t remember it was what we were just talking about, but still. And maybe I don’t dress up in lingerie, but hell, I shave my legs and sometimes, that’s enough.

The hard work of staying in love isn’t sexy. Not the stuff of songs. But I promise you, we are out here, us middle-aged couples, quietly and yet fiercely keeping the fires burning, more in love than ever.

I am full of curves and edges, and plenty of imperfections too. My husband is not writing love songs to me–not on paper. But he has written rock operas and librettos worth in his actions over the last seventeen years. I laid myself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am. And he did. And seventeen years ago today we said, “I do.”

Dear Reader, I stayed married to him.

Happy anniversary, my darling.

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Life in the Middle Ages

honey-kennedy-nina-leen-la-barbe-a-papa-03Much like gaining weight, middle age seems to have snuck up on me. Sure, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew all those nights spent in front of the television with bowls of salty snacks would eventually come between me and the button of my jeans (sorry, Brooke, there is something between me and my Calvins….it’s called a muffin top). I knew it the same way I knew all those birthday candles would eventually add up. But it is slow and nefarious, this getting older business. Sometimes it catches you by surprise.

All those small steps don’t seem so bad. A little wobble here, a little paunch there. A chin hair here, an enlarging of your Kindle font there. But then one day you realize it’s not a question of getting your jeans buttoned or even getting them past your knees but more not remembering when you just gave up and bought a bigger size. Or like when you find yourself sitting in the front seat of the car merrily singing along to Margaritaville.

Wait…what??

I’ve never been a parrot head or whatever bird Jimmy Buffett fans are named after. To me Margaritaville has always embodied the kind of generic, store brand complacency I ran away from as a youth. Singing about wasting away and claiming there’s a woman to blame? It has always been the epitome of older than your years middle age music to me. So when I found myself enthusiastically singing along about lost shakers of salt with my husband on a road trip recently, it was the mental equivalent of trying to get my jeans up over my squishy thighs and realizing they weren’t going anywhere.

But I know….it’s my own damn fault.

Oldies stations that play 80s music, soft rock which includes the metal bands of your youth, the length of Van Halentime it takes to scroll down to 197X. Ticking a different demographic bracket. Being okay with a little squish, a little soft around the middle–literally and figuratively. They’re all signs of life in the middle ages. But there are more. Oh so many more.

I amble down the aisles, meander around the malls and the styles that fill the racks and stock the shelves? I’ve owned those styles already in some other decade. I’ve owned them and donated them to the Salvation Army. It’s hard to get excited by clothes you’ve already worn and deemed out of fashion once upon a time.

Here’s another sign: a groupon to your favorite rock band. That’s right, folks. The hair bands of your high school days, the ones your parents begged you to turn down, they’re touring again and you can get a groupon deal to go and see them. Yes, David Lee Roth, I’m looking at you. When you can get a deep dish discount to see the premium bands of your youth, you may as well jump. Jump! Who knows, maybe Eddie Van Halen’s standing there, his back against the record machine wondering when the hell he got so old.

When the idea of staying up all night makes you physically ill, you know you’ve hit middle age. When you can’t start watching a movie after 8:30 pm because you’re not sure you’ll make it up to see the ending, and you’re ok with it? You’re probably middle-aged.

Apples-602x451If your teeth hurt watching kids gobble up cones of cotton candy bigger than their heads and guzzle orange soda, all those things you lived for as a kid–Fun Dips for crying out loud--you’re probably middle-aged.

If you remember a time when peanut butter wasn’t a weapon of mass destruction, but just a sandwich filling you’re probably middle-aged. If there are dance clubs that play the music you cut your teeth on and they’re billed as retro? It’s a good sign you’re middle-aged.

If you start talking bout my generation, starting statements with “in my day” or waxing on, waxing off about how much better things used to be, you’re probably middle-aged.

If you think the current crop of kids is the end of the world as we know it? You’re probably middle-aged. Video killed the radio star, but if you’re pretty sure YouTube killed the video star? Welcome to the middle ages, my friend.

Can’t find your lost shaker of salt? Don’t worry, most of us are having trouble remembering where we put stuff lately.

lost shaker of salt

Perhaps Jimmy Buffett is really singing about life after 45. Maybe Margaritaville is really a retirement community bursting with paunchy men in Hawaiian prints and women in culottes and big hair. Think about it. Flip-flops and blender drinks. Baggy, elasticized clothes without buttons. Not remembering where you put the salt.

Damn. It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as it used to.

 

F Words

From an old Golden Girl to an up and coming one
From an old Golden Girl to an up and coming one

Next week my sister turns 40. I would cackle with glee and do an evil little leprechaun dance except for that fact that she’s my younger sister and her turning 40 means that I’m well over 40.

Schadenfreude, have you met my good friend irony?

The internet abounds–it practically explodes–with advice about turning 40. What to look forward to, what to expect when you’re expecting middle age, how to enjoy the last uptick of the hill before you’re over it. Somewhere out there is probably a recommended soundtrack featuring The Smiths and Tears for Fears. But you know. It’s my sister this time. As big sister I’m supposed to lead the way, forge a path, lay the foundation and other carpentry metaphors. I’m supposed to tell her the truth about being 40.

At 44, I feel like I’m on the cusp of being an expert 40-something. As a writer, I’m rarely at a loss for words. With that in mind dear sistah…here’s what you have to look forward to.

Your 40s are Fearless

As you take your first tentative steps into your 40s, you may notice you suddenly have more time to stop and smell the roses. Some of that may be because your finances are in better shape or your retirement plan is doing well giving you a bit more leisure time in the garden to cultivate those roses. But a lot of it is because you stop worrying so much about shit that doesn’t matter. Bending down over those roses, with your gut hanging over your pants, you are probably going to realize that you no longer care if the girls and the boys lining your garden path are gossiping about your camel-toe or making fun of your muffin top. Remember all that time you used to spend worrying about what other people thought? You are going to find yourself with a lot more space in your head freed up from caring. You will fearlessly cavort down your path in your too-tight jeans. Wedgie be damned.

Your 40s are Forgetful

For the love of Pete, what did I need in here??
For the love of Pete, what did I need in here??

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to warn you that a lot of that free time is going to be spent trying to figure out if you’ve forgotten something important. A child, an appointment for surgery, your best friend’s birthday, to put shoes on. You will stand in front of the refrigerator, the cupboard, the door to the basement frantically wondering if it is normal for you to forget what sent you there five minutes before. You will happily spend whole afternoons in your garden remembering only at bedtime that there was some soul sucking meeting regarding your kid or your retirement plan that you plumb forgot. A word of advice: don’t pick at the contents of the fridge or the pantry while you’re desperately trying to remember what you went there for because the next ‘f’ is for flab.

Your 40s are spent Fighting Fat

Remember how you used to cut out bread for a week or do an extra spin class, have a few salads and you’d fit back into your jeans? Well, you can forget about all that the same way you’ve forgotten your kid at the bus stop. All of a sudden, seemingly overnight, there’s a spare tire here and a few bingo wings there and you start understanding why Nana preferred elasticized pants. The kicker? Even though you mostly don’t care about what other people think, this one’s hard to let go of. So you’ll spend the first year of your forties thinking, oh, that won’t happen to me, the next saying, shit it’s happening to me, the next one trying to come up with everything else it could be, (lupus? cancer? the water??) and the next reconciling yourself to the fact that it is indeed, as your wise, slightly older sister told you, age. Perhaps by the time you reach 50 you don’t care about that either. I’ll let you know in a few years.

Your 40s are about Flashes

As in hot, as in rage, as in that’s how quick it was between moods and the last time you plucked that stubborn chin hair. Flash as in, no way am I going to do that with my boobs because they’re down by my belt. Flash as in, I can’t believe how quickly the time doth fly. Get used to roller coaster emotions, sleeping with the windows open and getting pissed off when the indicator on your car blinks too loudly. Get ready to think its April when it’s really August. Get ready to want to rip someone’s head off and eat their beating heart in front of them to show them how loudly they’re chewing. Get ready to start thinking that global warming is a very, very, very personal thing.

Oh God.
Oh God.

Your 40s are going to be about Friends and Family and the Future

Your forties are all about realizing what and who is important. It’s a time to streamline, to clean out your closet, purge your Facebook friend list and shed dead weight, whether that weight comes in the form of toxic friendships or dead-end jobs or stuck in the mud relationships. It’s no coincidence that by the time you hit 40, you look around and realize that statistically speaking, more than half of your life is behind you. The good news? You’ve come a long way baby, but you’ve still got a long way to go. The time is ripe to make a change. You’re young enough to still grab life by the balls, even if you have to stick your head in the freezer and you don’t remember why you were at the freezer to begin with.

So almost welcome to your 40s, baby sis. You’re going to love it, I promise. So ice the cake, light the candles and say a different kind of ‘f’ word to what you’re leaving behind. Your 40s called and they’re going to be fantastic.

Love being in your 40s? Share it!

48 Candles

top hatEvery generation has a Prince Charming.  A fairy tale hero, a knight in shining armor.  For many growing up in the 80s, it was Jake Ryan.  Was there ever a boyfriend as hunky, as dory, as swoon worthy as Jake Ryan?  Every girl (and many a boy, I’m sure) who daily lived the social awkwardness so deftly portrayed in Sixteen Candles, was in love with Jake Ryan.  Any tween or teen who cringed and nodded in acknowledgment, who saw something of themselves in that hallway microcosm of freaks and geeks and hopelessly devoted, was a little bit in love with Jake Ryan.  Not only was he hot, he was rich.  Not only was he hot and rich, he chose the road less traveled by choosing the quirky Samantha, flat chested and red-headed, over the buxom blonde.  He made her a birthday cake after her family had forgotten her sweet sixteen.  And if all of that wasn’t enough, before leaned over those sixteen candles to kiss her, he returned her blackmailed underpants; her glass slipper.  Prince Charming.

Ah, young love.  The problem with young love is that it is….young.  While perhaps passionate and intense, it is also inexperienced and unchallenged.  What happens when Cinderella and Prince Charming get a bit older, have a few kids, get to the middle bit of middle age?  What happens when the fairy tale starts to notice a few crow’s-feet and heartburn?

What if the Hughesian fairy tale continued?  When we last saw Jake Ryan and Samantha Baker, they were just about to kiss.  Suppose for a moment that Sam and Jake kept dating throughout high school.  Maybe Samantha went on to college and studied marketing.  Marketing was a hot major in the 80s.  Maybe Jake started working in his father’s successful business.  They’re young and in love, motivated to succeed and go places.  They are made for one another.  They get married, (yes, mawwied–sheesh!), have two kids.  Somewhere north of Chicago they buy a modest suburban dwelling and settle into a comfortable existence.  School runs and Little League, check ups and Sunday dinners, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, gymnastics, ballet, T-ball, laundry, food shopping, changing the sheets, comparing insurance quotes.

In other words, life.

Their marriage, like any other, would have its ups, its downs.  Perhaps Samantha’s dreams of being a career mom died when the kids came so close together.  Maybe it was an unpleasant and difficult death, leaving behind a ghost of resentment.  Most of the time the ghost stays buried, under the diapers and the food shopping and bottles of Similac.  But sometimes it rises up and clanks its chains, demanding to be heard.  Perhaps the pressure of taking over the family business weighs Jake down.  Maybe he struggles with the heavy-duty responsibility of providing for a growing family.  It’s a far cry from the career he had dreamed of, far from his rich kid past when the economy was booming.  The wheeling and the dealing is exhausting, the constant compromise and negotiation just to make a buck.  But Sam and Jake ride the ups, they white water raft the downs.  They are Samantha and Jake, ships that met in the night on a course bound for happily ever after.  They go out to dinner every now and then. They host barbecues with burgers and beer in styrofoam coolers, fruit salad in a hollowed out watermelon.  Sometimes they go and see a movie.

romance

Things get easier as the kids get a little older and Sam makes plans to go back to work.  Young Michael plays Pop Warner football.  Molly is showing promise at the piano.  A parent gets ill, their modest house is worth double what they paid for it, a friend is diagnosed with cancer.  Just as the pendulum is swinging back toward normalcy, when there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a little bit of breathing room, Sam gets pregnant after a night of happy hour margaritas and a promise of pulling out.  Nine months later, Claire is born and they start all over.  More sleepless nights, more loads of laundry, more diapers.  Another mouth to feed, another parent/teacher conference to attend.  Sam puts her idea of going back to work on hold….again.  Maybe she blames Jake, because it’s easier to have a pair of feet at which to lay the blame and his feet are bigger than hers.  Jake starts playing golf, under the guise of keeping fit, but mostly to get out of the house.  Increasingly they struggle to find things to talk about.  It’s always the kids or money or the kids again.  Sex takes a backseat to sleep, to the kids, to work and food, mortgages and insurance quotes.  Life becomes about getting through the day, through the quarter, through the school year.

You see, even Cinderella and Prince Charming have to deal with the everyday, with the minute and the muck, the monotonous and the mundane. Jake and Sam are no different.  Neither are you, neither am I.

Time and more time and even more goes by; a new century, a new dawn.  The real estate market is about to tank, the economy is in a tail spin and they watch their 40s come in, not with a bang, but a whimper.  The kids are older, even baby Claire.  Sam is working again, doing something completely unrelated to marketing, but it frees her from the housewife blues, from the mountains of laundry and never-ending chores.  She’s put on a few pounds, she has to dye her hair a darker auburn.  There are fine lines and wrinkles beginning to sprout; laugh lines and worry marks, the creases of time and motherhood, of love and loss.  There have been one or two moments when she felt she was going to spontaneously combust from the heat searing her from the inside out.  Jake sports a slight paunch that he can camouflage with a bit of care.  The kayak he bought to use on Lake Michigan sits unused on in the garage and he keeps meaning to put it on Craig’s List.  Work is afloat but he worries about the second mortgage they are going to have to take out in order to send Michael to college.  A few years ago they sold up and for a while, they were moving on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky, or in their case, a colonial in Lake Forest   They haven’t seen a movie in years.  The barbeques became less frequent when the divorces started.  Sam doesn’t like the second wives, they are too young, too pert, too…blank.   There aren’t too many second husbands.  Their neighbors and friends are navigating their own rapids, resting when they can, paddling like hell when they need to.  Sometimes they are all just caught in an eddy of time until they reach the next riptide.

One day Sam sees a picture that a friend has posted on Facebook and notices that Jake is losing his hair.  Jake Ryan is going bald.  She hadn’t noticed before.  In between the food shopping and working and shuttling to and from ballet lessons, between the Saturday golf and the doctor’s appointments and the bake sales and the Girl Scout meetings and college applications.  Between the meetings at the office and the golf Saturdays and the piano recitals they don’t really see each other.  They see each other, of course; peeking through a pile of folded towels and fitted sheets, at the one or two dinners they have each week as a family.  They see each in photographs after the two-week vacation they take every year to the house on the lake.  They see each other as they are passing the salt or spitting toothpaste into the sink.

soldierIt’s been a long time since she looked at him with the starry eyes of a young girl gazing up at the most popular boy in school.  A lot of midnights have come and gone.  She’s outgrown glass slippers and bikini briefs and moved on to flats and Spanx.  His belt has been loosened a few notches, and he is losing his hair.

But!  In all these years, these years of births and deaths, of loving and honoring, of rich and poor, of sickness and health, he has never once forgotten her birthday.  There has always been cake, there have always been candles.  And that counts for a lot.  Even when the number of candles more than you want to acknowledge, even when your own Prince Charming starts to lose his hair.

Even ships that meet in the night, bound for a course of happily ever after get stuck in the doldrums now and again.  The real fairy tale is not dashing rescues and narrow escapes and epic journeys.  The real heroism of relationships is standing by each other until the wind picks up and you are able to sail onward.  Happily Ever After is not a final destination, but the journey itself.

So go and give your Prince Charming a kiss tonight.  Hug your Jake Ryan. I bet when you look in his eyes, you’ll see that dreamy guy you gave your heart to.

p.s.  Even all these years later, this scene makes me smile.