I mentioned in a recent post that I might change my Gravatar/WordPress image to a cartoon avatar instead of a real photo, just to have more fun. I’ve changed it now, and not only as a Gravatar, but also on Gmail and on my work Outlook account. A few other people at work have done the same, so it’s not entirely silly—or if it is, at least I’m not the only one. Here it is:


Because the cartoon image looks younger than my real age, I’m curious as to whether seeing it every day will cause me to feel younger and more energetic as time goes by. There are research studies establishing that older people actually become healthier when put into an environment filled with reminders of their youth, showing measurable improvements in conditions associated with aging. It’s an interesting experiment, and even if it’s a bit on the goofy side, there can’t be any harm in it.

Early this morning, while it was still dark, I woke up with the Carly Simon song “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” in my head. That song is almost 50 years old, but I’d heard it recently on XM radio when I went to get my hair done. The lyrics are about married couples who do not live happily ever after.


Usually songs don’t get to me that much, but it seemed like I was lying awake for over an hour, feeling profoundly saddened by the lines “Their children hate them for the things they’re not. They hate themselves for what they are…”

According to my Fitbit, which I regularly wear at night to track my sleep, I was dreaming most of that time and wasn’t in fact awake for more than a few minutes. But, however long I was really awake before morning (another dark and chilly almost-November day) arrived, the song left me brooding about how harshly our culture teaches us to judge both others and ourselves.

Maybe it’s the political situation right now that has my thoughts running along such paths. When so many people feel that they are always being judged and falling short of expectations, no matter how much effort they put into doing what they “should,” then it’s no wonder they feel angry about life being unfair.

I am not going to judge anyone for being angry, as doing so only compounds the problem. Still—from my own perspective on the way things should be—I’d like to believe that most of us, both when voting and more generally, can set aside that anger and instead look toward what’s needed to heal.

A friend recently asked me if I still had some old emails from a list we had both participated in ten years ago. I said yes, I had them archived in Outlook. When I looked, though, I had only a year’s worth of messages, and there should have been more.

After a while I remembered that I had joined the list originally using a web-based email account, rather than the address from my Internet provider, which I started using for the list later. So I went to the former account, which I hadn’t used in many years, and found it was still active. I didn’t have any further use for it, so I gave my friend the login information and told him that he could do whatever he liked with the old messages.

The annoying little gremlins (as Brené Brown calls them) in the back of my mind then started yapping at me that I was losing my sharpness. How could I forget all about an email account when I’d had no problems keeping track of multiple accounts in the past? Somehow I’d gotten myself lost, wandering around foggily in a dim, dark place without a clue how to climb back out.

Waterfall in a cave with a forest looming overhead.

Of course, such thoughts made no sense, as I realized soon enough. The Internet is full of old accounts that people abandoned and totally forgot. That’s just the way of things in the modern world—we now have a lot more random stuff floating around than we used to have. Expecting to keep it all in mind and perfectly organized, forever, is just plain ridiculous. No need for perfectionist anxiety in that regard!

When I got my groceries at Kroger on Sunday, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile was parked in front of the store. Seeing that goofy old icon of American culture gave me a smile, and I took a photo to send to my husband, who was at the gym. A few other people were taking pictures of it too.

Oscar Mayer wienermobile at Kroger.

Just out of curiosity, I looked at the company’s website to see how they had managed to keep people interested in the Wienermobile for so many years, when other promotions came and went. I discovered that it now has a tour schedule on Instagram and a phone app with a driving game, among other things. Quite a change from the little trinkets for children that I remember.

That’s the way it goes nowadays—in a world where so many things have been changing so quickly, we can’t reasonably expect much to stay constant. As a result, we need to cultivate the skill of letting go and moving on, both in business and as individuals.

While that may seem overwhelming, much of the time it’s not really as hard as it seems. We don’t have to transform ourselves into something completely different before we can fit into today’s busy world; it’s more a matter of keeping track of the details and updating them as needed.

In that regard, I found the Wienermobile a reassuring sight, in that it’s really much the same as always. Like all vehicles, the technology improves with every redesign, but the main difference is simply that the marketing has changed to keep pace with modern expectations. As often happens, when changes need to be made, they chiefly have to do with communication and finding more ways to relate.

Ever since Fannie, my imaginary 119-year-old future self, suggested a few months ago that I might want to invite the archetypal Crone to play tennis, I had been turning that idea over in my mind. It made sense on a basic narrative level—if I wanted to explore possibilities other than the usual negative beliefs about aging, then I needed to be more creative in how I pictured older people. That included expecting the Crone to do more than just sit and tell stories, as in my previous post about her last winter.

Tennis didn’t work, though, for several reasons. First, I never played the sport or had much interest in it, and an imaginary outing where I bumbled around cluelessly on the tennis court didn’t hold much appeal. Of course, I didn’t have to be as realistic as that; but I didn’t want to be the Crone’s opponent in a sporting event anyway, or even her doubles partner, which would carry another well-defined set of adversarial socially-scripted baggage about pushing one’s body to the limit and always competing to excel over others. I really did just want the Crone to tell me stories, but without the typical cultural strings attached.

So, after I recently spent some time browsing through winter landscape scenes and imagining myself (as I mentioned here) on a snowy forest adventure, I decided to invite the Crone to be my companion on a mountain-climbing trip. That would be active enough to dispel the old-woman stereotypes, but we wouldn’t be opponents in anything, and there would be plenty of time for insightful conversation. I’ve never been a mountain climber in real life either, but that was okay—a hiking trail along a mountainside, without need for rock-climbing gear, would be sufficient.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The crisp mountain air carried the scent of pine trees and snow. The wind was just right—enough of a breeze so that the Crone and I wouldn’t overheat as we hiked up the trail in our heavy winter gear, but it wasn’t blowing hard enough to make us want to pull our scarves up over our faces.

“Oh look, just over there!” exclaimed the Crone, as we went around a curve dotted by rocks and small bushes. I didn’t see much of anything else, but the Crone sounded quite excited indeed. She bustled over to a spot of green in the shelter of two rocks, where glossy leaves and a few bright berries could be seen poking up through the winter’s debris.

“It’s just another wildflower nowadays,” she explained, lovingly brushing away twigs and snow to give me a better view. “But long ago, skilled herbalists would have come out looking for this and other healing plants, even in winter. Many of them were older women, you know. They brought apprentices on mountain hikes very much like this, pointing out where the medicinal herbs could be found and how to recognize them.”

After carefully replacing the small twigs and dry leaves that protected the plant from the cold air, my companion stood up and went back to the trail. We continued around another bend, winding between several thick pines, while I considered the message in this little interlude.

“It’s just a myth, then, that old women didn’t do much but sit by the fire and tell stories,” I said after a minute or so, as I took a few quick steps to catch up to the Crone. She had gotten ahead of me while I was preoccupied with my thoughts, and she walked with plenty of vigor.

“Life was much harder in those days,” the Crone noted in a reflective tone, as if describing her own past. She slowed her stride a little. “Every pair of hands was needed. If an elder didn’t have the strength to work outdoors, she might indeed sit by the fire—but there would always be chores she could do while sitting. Of course, that didn’t prevent her from telling stories at the same time. When surviving through the winter couldn’t be taken for granted, stories and song went far toward keeping joy and vitality in the soul, just as herbal remedies kept the body healthy.”

We came out of the pines onto a steep ascent. The snowy peaks loomed majestically above us, just as they would have done thousands of years ago. I felt grateful for their enduring wisdom, as well as for my companion’s gentle words, as the imaginary adventure faded away.

Last week the rowing club was more adventurous than usual, traveling to a large regatta in Florida. My husband and I stayed with another club member at his mother’s house not far from the race course. She is a delightful English lady who loves to have guests and is very outspoken, making blunt remarks such as “Absolute rubbish!” when, for instance, my husband suggested that we might take our clothes to a laundromat rather than inconvenience her by using her washer and dryer.

She is 86 years old and very active, going sailing once a week and doing charitable work regularly. When the heat got to me on the practice day before the races started, she sympathized with me by saying that she recently had gotten rather dehydrated playing tennis for two hours on a hot day.

That evening I still didn’t feel quite right after rowing and being outdoors for a long time in the heat. When I got in bed, I felt as if it might be rocking gently, like a boat. That reminded me of reading Kon-Tiki as a child and pretending that my bed was a balsa-wood raft floating across the Pacific Ocean. So, as I couldn’t get to sleep right away, I decided to populate this imaginary scenario with my adventurous future self, Fannie. I pictured us looking up at the stars from a natural-fiber mat on the raft, with plenty of comfortable pillows.

Photo of the Kon-Tiki raft in its museum.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)


“So, Fannie,” I asked her, in my best faux-English accent, “would you say that the stories our culture tells about aging are absolute rubbish?”

“No, I wouldn’t actually,” she said, drawing out the vowel into an absurdly long ‘ah’ sound, “and by the way, you are rubbish with ah-ccents, and I never got much better with them over the years. So we might do better to stick with ordinary American conversation, though there’s nobody around but a few imaginary flying fish to hear us embarrassing ourselves.”

Fannie snuggled deeper into the pillows and went on to say, “Putting energy into rejecting a cultural narrative only feeds it more power. What we resist persists; that’s from Carl Jung, a very wise man. When you feel that society has you in a box, there’s no need to kick and beat on the walls. Just look up, and you’ll see the sky and feel a breeze flowing through. The box is not solid. All you have to do is step out of it. Dance and skip out of it. Do handsprings and cartwheels out of it. Oh, was there a box around here somewhere? I hadn’t noticed. Where it went, I can’t say. Maybe it’s in that field over there, behind all those tall weeds.”

“Once upon a time, long, long ago,” I said, getting into the spirit of it, “there were people who thought they had to stay in boxes; or at least, that’s what my great-grandmother told me.”

“Lost in the mists of time,” Fannie agreed cheerfully. “And while we’re on the subject, maybe instead of picturing the archetypal Crone just sitting and telling stories, you might want to invite her to play some tennis. Yes, I know you are rubbish at tennis, but the Crone hasn’t played in many years either. Of course, I’m no better at it, since I am you, so that’s nothing personal.”

I thought that I heard Fannie chuckling quietly to herself, but a fish leaped out of the ocean just then and landed with a particularly loud splash, so I couldn’t be quite sure.

This year my husband and I have been rowing singles many days, rather than only sculling in our double. We bought the singles to celebrate our 30th anniversary, which was in May. It was my husband’s idea and a surprise to me. I had suggested that he might want to look into buying a single because he had been taking a very old club boat to the regattas, and it was too big for him and poorly suited to his rowing style. I never thought about getting one for myself, though. The club boats did not fit me any better (worse, actually), but I was happy with the double, rarely rowed singles, and never had considered racing one.

Now that I’ve had a few months to get used to rowing a single that is the right size and is set up the way I like it, I’ve been starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of taking it to regattas. My husband suggested that I enter an October head race on our favorite course in Tennessee. (Head races are 5K races during the fall season, so-called because they often take place at the head of a river.)

One double and two single sculling boats.

I was wondering how many women would be competing in my age group. When my husband looked up last year’s race, he told me that there was only one rower in the category of women over 50 racing a single. Other regattas that we like to attend are much the same, with very few older women rowing singles; and my practice times are competitive with their race times, despite my lack of experience.

Although that should mean I can expect to win medals, it is also a bit disconcerting. I understand that much of it is generational, in that most women my age were not encouraged to be athletic when we were growing up. A woman of my generation might enjoy racing in a mixed crew with her husband, but she is not as likely to think about signing up for individual events. Younger women often are more adventurous and competitive because the times have changed.

So, it doesn’t mean that I am now so old that my competition has started dying off. Nor does it have any logical bearing on how many years I might be healthy enough to row. The fact that such thoughts even briefly came to mind bugs me anyway, though.

Last year I began writing occasional stories about my fantastically adventurous future self, aka Fannie, mainly to remind myself that there are many other possible futures besides the usual culturally-conditioned aging scenarios. I decided that Fannie should be 119 years old, not because I expect to live to that age or any other particular age, but simply to kick all such expectations much farther down the road.

Some folks really do live that long in the present day, and it seems likely that longevity will increase as a result of scientific advances. That puts Fannie within the bounds of reasonable possibility, although I never intended my stories about her to be realistic, or close to it; they’re aimed more at liberating my thoughts from other people’s overly narrow ideas of what is or should be realistic.

In that spirit, and without making any assumptions beyond observing that the future surely holds more possibilities than we know, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ideas I had about aging when I was a teenager. Back then, to the (very minimal) extent I thought about it at all, I didn’t see myself living past 80, which seemed ancient and very far away. This morning I put a birthday card in the mail for my mom, who turns 80 next week and is generally healthy. My dad and my husband’s parents already are over 80, and whatever notions I might have had about when a person becomes “ancient” have changed accordingly.

So I’m wondering—now that becoming “ancient” seems much farther away than I once imagined it, and there is at least some possibility I could have another half-century or more of healthy life remaining—why should I feel any closer to old age (whatever that may mean) than I felt when I was a teenager?

I recently had a midyear conversation with my manager about resources available for building more skills, among other things. The company has been encouraging employees to use online training materials for personal development.

My manager said that she had been talking with other people in my workgroup about their plans. Some wanted to keep doing the same job, while some were looking to change positions or to retire, and others hadn’t settled on what would be next.

Although she didn’t come right out and ask, I got the distinct impression that there was a question in there; so I replied that I was in the “not sure what comes next” group. That was true enough.

I have been doing pretty much the same work for many years and sometimes feel as if I’ve gotten stuck in a comfortable rut (which I didn’t say). The job is well suited to my temperament and skill set, and my manager and coworkers are very nice people.

Rutted road bordered by telephone poles and fences.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

In our turbulent modern society, there is now an expectation that we need to plan far ahead. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on valuable opportunities and put ourselves at risk of falling too far behind to ever catch up. It’s no longer enough just to be a responsible adult who is working and paying the bills.

There are rational reasons for that fear. Many people really did end up in bad situations because they lost a job to offshoring or automation and did not have the skills needed to get a better job, or they wanted to retire but did not have enough savings. So, now we’re always seeing news articles that admonish us to save much more, improve our skills at every possible opportunity, and plan our entire lives in great detail.

There is an emotional cost to all this pressure, though, which I don’t believe our society is fully taking into account. When we’re expected to run faster on the hamster wheel at all times, we get stressed out. And stress causes health problems, detracts from mental flexibility, and leads to persistent feelings of being overwhelmed and insecure. Then, on top of all that, we feel guilty for not doing a better job of managing our stress, and we get even more stressed.

So I’ve decided that I am not going to worry about what might come next. Why should I feel obligated to live up to some arbitrarily created checklist—which, given how fast the world is changing, may not even come close to my actual future circumstances? To me, it makes much more sense simply to exist in the moment, saving a reasonable amount and learning enough to broaden my horizons, but without forcing anything. Then, maybe, when the time is right, discovering “what comes next” will happen naturally.

My husband always does the mowing, while I am responsible for anything that grows in the yard and is not grass. Planting annual flowers in the spring is fun, but weeding—not so much. It didn’t really bother me at our previous house, which had well-established perennial flowerbeds and very few weeds. When we moved to this house, though, the neighborhood still had several vacant lots, and plenty of thistle seeds and other annoying weeds blew into the yard.

Digging those thistles out of the flowers often left me feeling achy the next day, unlike when I did the easier gardening at the other house. I started to wonder if I was getting sore because I was older. After all, I was turning 40, which had seemed quite far in the future when we were 30 and moved into the previous house. As time went by and I got busier with such things as the kids’ sporting events, I rushed through the weeding, with the mindset that it was a miserable chore and probably would always give me aches and pains.

This year, however, I decided to test the hypothesis that whatever aches I got were caused mainly by too much rushing around, rather than anything to do with my age. I did some weeding on Saturday while my husband mowed the lawn. Instead of rushing through it, I slowed down, taking a little time to walk around and stretch every few minutes. I also alternated weeding with a little pruning, so that I wasn’t in the same position the whole time.

A more leisurely pace didn’t actually take much longer; my husband was putting away the lawnmower at about the same time I finished the weeding. I felt fine afterward and spent a few minutes browsing through and uploading Creative Commons photos to the library for my art display. I particularly liked the photo shown below, entitled “Old Loggers Path.” I’m sure that must mean an old path used by loggers, but it gave me a mental image of a group of brawny guys with gray beards walking along carrying axes.

Loggers' path with sunlight filtering through tall trees.

(Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli)

When I woke up on Sunday morning I wasn’t at all sore. I had to conclude that I would have avoided years of aches from weeding if I’d taken the time to consider possible causes and solutions. It seems simple enough in hindsight, but our culture doesn’t encourage a mindful approach to health. Instead, the prevailing assumption is that the body naturally falls apart as we get older and there’s not much to be done about it.

While it’s certainly true that the body, like a machine, sustains some amount of wear and tear as time passes, I suspect that much of what gets attributed to age is not really inevitable. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to make a few improvements in maintenance.

Chilly weather kept me indoors the past week, but that was all right because I stayed cozy while rereading the classic children’s book “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is set in 1900 or thereabouts. A disagreeable and selfish girl named Mary, who always had servants to wait on her and never learned to do anything for herself, is sent to live with her uncle in Yorkshire after her parents’ sudden deaths. The local children befriend her, although at first she does not even know how to play with other children. She finds a secret garden that has been neglected for ten years and decides to make it beautiful again by weeding, planting seeds, and pruning overgrown roses.

Red and white roses blooming.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Mary discovers that her uncle has a son, Colin, whose mother died when he was very young and who is even more selfish and spoiled than Mary herself. Colin was sickly as a small boy and overheard adults saying that he would not live to grow up, which caused him to worry obsessively about his health. He became afraid to go outside because he worried about catching some disease or being stared at by pitying passers-by. Staying in his bedroom all the time and being a very picky eater made him so weak that everyone thought he was unable to walk. He did not go to school, and a servant pushed him in a wheelchair on the rare occasions that he left the house.

After Mary interrupts one of Colin’s frequent self-pitying tantrums by shouting at him that there is really nothing wrong with his health—which none of the servants had ever dared to say—she tells him about the secret garden and how happy she feels being out there in the sunshine. She persuades him to let one of the local boys push his chair to the garden, where he feels so much better that he embarks on what he calls a “Scientific Experiment” to become stronger with the help of the same “Magic” that makes the plants grow. After months of exercise in the garden and good nourishing meals, Colin feels perfectly healthy. His father is very surprised, upon returning from a long trip abroad, to find a much better-tempered Colin and Mary running and playing happily in the garden that Colin’s mother once loved.

The story is chiefly about the power of thoughts to change the course of people’s lives, for better or worse. It left me pondering whether the occasional aches and pains that I’ve noticed in recent years might have to do with feelings of being too busy. Although I am not really all that busy compared to many people, or even to myself in the past, I have spent a lot of time in the backyard the past few years, pruning shrubs and small willows that got damaged by recent cold winters and dry summers. Maybe that contributed to aches in my arms (from “pushing” to get things done) and my feet (from being “run ragged” by the to-do list).

So, like Colin, I’ve decided to make this year’s gardening season into a “Scientific Experiment” to test the hypothesis that the random aches and pains will naturally go away in a few months if I don’t feel overly busy. Instead of thinking in terms of always having “yard work” to do, I plan to look at it as playing in the garden and to be cheerful about going out to play. I am even going to look at myself in the mirror before going outdoors and imitate the country Yorkshire accent of some characters in the story, telling my reflection, “Eh, lass, get you gone an’ play you!”

Of course, I don’t really have any idea what a country Yorkshire accent sounds like, even in modern times, much less what it would have been like a century ago; so, needless to say, I’ll sound quite ridiculous. That is all right, though, because play is not supposed to be serious, so it will just add to the fun!