John Lennon, Cynicism, and Why I’ll Never Get To Kiss Dean Harris

“For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool, by making his world a little colder.” Paul McCartney

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to see the Beatles tribute show, Just Imagine. A lovely and generous friend had offered my family free tickets for a Saturday matinee and, hey, who doesn’t like The Beatles?

The first few minutes of the show required some adjusting, on my part. The guy playing Lennon isn’t exactly a teenager, and when he walked through a pretend cloud onto the stage, a huge stairway (to heaven, I’m guessing) projected onto a scrim behind him, the visual was a little funny at first. He wore tight jeans, bangs and little round glasses. I gave my husband’s hand a secret squeeze and settled in.

Through short monologues, old photos and, of course, his music, Just Imagine tells the story of John Lennon’s life, and his journey as an artist. The guy playing John ended up being great. He was charming and funny and sounded exactly like someone who makes his living being John Lennon should sound. By intermission, my face hurt from smiling.

“What do you think?” My husband asked, as we stood in the lobby in between acts, surrounded by lavender hairdos and pantsuits.

“I love it,” I said. “It’s impossible to watch this show and be cynical.”

Like those little babies you see who, fitted with a little hearing aid, go nuts with happiness at the regular sounds of our boring old world, I still get a kick out of how much better life is, now that I’ve given up believing that everything that makes the human heart sing is lame. Some say that cynicism comes naturally, along with aging, but I disagree. In her blog post 11 Undeniable Signs You’re Becoming Cynical, Kate Gorge describes how getting older can bring on a kind of positive cynicism:

“Things start to seem farcical and ridiculous, and you question more than you did when you were a younger person. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; becoming more cynical means that you stop accepting things on face value and start approaching things with more caution.”

Not to be a stickler, but cynicism is not the same as discernment. Discernment, one of the many gifts of growing older, leads straight to your best life. Cynicism, on the other hand, leads you to the table with “the cool kids,” and anyone who’s lived through middle school knows that’s not nearly as fun as it looks.

I started young. As a little kid, I refused to take part in Easter egg hunts because they were babyish. I didn’t like all the adults standing around smiling and pointing at us kids while we played right into their hands. Not me, I thought, feeling embarrassed for the kids scampering around searching for that pathetic golden egg. No way. I stood alone, with my empty basket, next to the ham.

When I was ten, a class called “For Girls Only” was offered to all us fifth graders, along with an alternative class which, oddly, wasn’t called “For Boys Only,” but, instead, “Kick Ball.” We could choose which class to take, but it was pretty obvious what the grown-ups expected. All the girls in my class took the bait, signing up for the “girl” class and spending an hour a week, for six weeks, talking about periods, vaginas and bonding with the female teachers over stories of bras and underarm hair. Even though I was curious about all those things too, my friend Alyssa and I signed up for Kickball, not because we loved Kickball so much, but because I talked Alissa into agreeing with me that a bunch of girls passing around Tampax and giggling was weird and boring.

I was so cynical that in sixth grade I would not play Spin the Bottle, despite the fact that I burned with passion for Dean Harris, the kid who sat behind me in Social Studies. Instead, I sat on a leaky beanbag chair in the corner and watched him kiss another girl, who had long blonde hair, a Bonnie Bell Lip Smacker hanging around her neck, and was game for anything. I rolled my eyes. I just couldn’t let go. Damn.

I don’t know when I started being so cynical, but I have a good idea why. In my family, unbridled enthusiasm was like wearing a hamburger suit in a shark tank. You were just asking for it. I was pretty good at self-defense, and deciding that everything was stupid was one of my best weapons. If you pretend nothing matters to you, you’ll never be a sucker. Words to live by if you want to protect your heart from, well, everything.

In 1996, I was living in chicago when the Olympic torch relay came through the city. My boyfriend (how I hated that word) and I were on the Michigan Avenue bus, when traffic stopped and the runner made his way, holding the torch overhead, through the street packed with cars and pedestrians. In one of those romantic big city moments, all the passengers all got up from their seats and  opened the windows on the left side, to get a better view. Not me, I stayed put. Olympic torch. What. Ever.

“Want to see?” My boyfriend asked.

“That’s ok.” I turned up Green Day on my Walkman. Even as I said it, I wondered why I just couldn’t take a peak. People were leaning out the windows of our bus, whistling and cheering the runner on. My boyfriend tried to stay in the seat with me, but he just couldn’t. It was too fun, too once-in-a-lifetime, and he went to the left side of the bus with everyone else, while I looked away and felt superior. All those people, waving to the crowd on the street, so uncool, so naive and so awkwardly human.

So how did I get from there, to here? Why, last Saturday, when the pretend John Lennon strolled through the audience with his guitar, did I sing along with all those baby boomers? Why did I clap and sway and la-la-la through the sections where I didn’t know the words?

Because, although it didn’t happen overnight, eventually it dawned on me that being cynical is basically a big drag, and in the words of John Lennon, I just had to let it go.

What a relief!

After the show last Saturday, my husband and I were in the lobby when members of the cast came out, in costume. Fake John Lennon was immediately surrounded by delighted audience members, buzzing with that glass of white zinfandel they had sprung for during intermission, and lining up for pictures. There was a woman close to my age with high hair and a sparkling dress. “You wanna get your picture taken with John?” she asked, waving me to the spot in front of her in line. I looked at her wide smile. This lady was having a blast. She was getting a picture, an autograph and probably a kiss on the lips, if she had her way. My mirror neurons went off like firecrackers. I’ll have what she’s having, I thought, and stepped in line.

If I could, I’d go back in time to that girl, standing by the ham with her arms folded, and share this little secret with her: giving up cynicism feels a lot like holding onto a balloon, very tightly, then finally letting go. Holding on is ok, but nothing compared to the fun of watching it float away. Going, going, gone…

(mostly.)

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Turning Fifty Without A Plan

11224118_10208237445398500_8333939483683415706_nI’m about to turn fifty. Like my twelve year old son, I’m experiencing changes in my body that are, at best, confusing, making me feel like an amateur at things like hair removal and feminine hygiene. My girly hormones are in retreat and can’t remember where I put my keys, ever. Or anything, ever. I have a mustache and orthodics  in my Clark’s shoes.

Midlife is a game changer, but like the old cliche says, “it beats the alternative” and, although it has its pitfalls where the ego is concerned, I’m not bummed about turning fifty, not by a long shot. Turning fifty is exciting, a milestone and I’m lucky to have made it here. Not since I packed my car full of record albums and candles, heading off on my own for the first time have I felt such curiosity about what the future holds. Of course, this time I have a husband beside me and two kids in the back seat, but the feeling is similar.

People expect you to do something BIG on your fiftieth. It’s a thing. So important is this rite of passage that some people plan their fiftieth celebration for years. They take safaris and things like that.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?” Friends ask.
“Why do I have to know?” I answer. “It’s six months away.”
“Well, if you want to plan a trip or something—“
“I don’t want to plan a trip.”
“Well what do you want to do then?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
“But definitely plan something. Fifty is a big deal!” The conversation plays out over and over, in much the same way.

“Do you know what you’re doing for your fiftieth?” Asks another friend.
“No. I haven’t decided.”
“Let your husband throw a big party for you!”
“I don’t think I want a big party. That sounds just super stressful.”
“Why?“ She asks, utterly confused.
“Because you mix friends who don’t know each other, you piss people off who aren’t invited, or you have some huge thing that feels overwhelming.”
“Well, definitely plan something. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
This last comment is sort of the friendship equivalent of your mother saying “Put a sweater on, I’m freezing.” Some friends have major regrets over not planning a big fiftieth thing, others are working through anxiety about what to do for their own, looming on the horizon.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. Originally, I figured the best plan would be to get started on something early so that, when November 30th arrived, I would ring in my second half century feeling great.

This is why, a few months back, I decided that I would lose weight. I have put on almost twenty pounds in the same number of years and decided fifteen of them had to go. I resolved to go to the gym and got that little point counter thingie on my iPhone just for, you know “fun.” A newly trim body would be my birthday gift to me!

Ok, fuck that. Moving on.

Then I decided I would start meditating again and take this herbal supplement that a very smart and healthy friend of mine told me about. During the last year I’d noticed an increase in anxiety of the snapping, steering-wheel-gripping kind, and I was looking for relief. Twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation, a pill, and within a month or two I would hit fifty feeling full of energy, in a good mood and that my elbows wouldn’t hurt. I shelled out the bucks and bought a few bottles. Lets just say the jury’s still out, but yesterday I cried on the phone with Time Warner, so draw your own conclusions.

Like many of us, since having kids, my personal productivity has gone down the drain. I do all kinds of things for my sons and husband, but have I’ve left my own creative aspirations dying on the vine. To me, turning fifty means reclaiming what I’ve let fall away. I decided that I would challenge myself to fifty days of writing a thousand words a day, but to do that I’d have had to start on October 10th, and I think I was busy that day swallowing herbs and calculating the calories in half a Pop Tart with the frosting scraped off, so I missed that window.

I knew that if I set a creative goal of any kind for my birthday month, I needed accountability, a plan, and NaNoWriMo seemed like just the thing. To win the month long writing challenge, you write fifty thousand words of fiction in thirty days, spurred on by the energy of thousands of other writers doing exactly the same thing at the same time. It’s like running a marathon but instead of running you type and eat muffins. I’ve always wanted to try it, but that’s a lot of words and November is a busy month. Still, if I managed to succeed, completing fifty thousand words of a novel ON my fiftieth birthday (the poetry of it all!) then that would really be something, wouldn’t it?

I don’t feel a lot of shame when I don’t finish a project, or when I’m not the best at it. For better or worse, I’m sort of used to being embarrassed, as that is practically my default setting, and fear of failure doesn’t tend to play into many of my decisions. But failing on the very day that I turn fifty might be too much, even for me. I want to feel like a winner that day, is that so wrong? Maybe NaNoWriMo should wait a year.

This whole thing has been a little stressful. My friends can see it. In the past month alone, people have suggested I try yoga, take a vacation, get regular massage, hypnosis, one texted me the name of a doctor who can check my hormone levels and “work wonders”, and I’ve received a pile of Xanax and a baggie of Valium, separately, as gifts. People know I’m in the weeds.

Then, I saw this poem by Mary Oliver. I had read it many times before, but this time, as I read the first few lines over and over, they resonated through my body, like a bell:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

That reminder, gentle and perfectly crafted, unscrambled my weary mind. Like so many of my women friends, I have been walking on my knees and repenting for most of my life. The career flubs, family issues, weight gain, lack of education, lack of accomplishment, lack of patience or talent or goodness— correcting or covering all of these imagined shortcomings is the equivalent of walking a hundred miles through the desert, and the last thing I want to do is meet the end of my fiftieth year like that.

What if I celebrate this birthday by forgetting, for once, the tweaking and improving, the five year plan and the thirty day challenge, and simply let my body “love what it loves?” Right now I love the quiet hours I devote to writing in the early morning. I love drinking a glass of wine with friends. I love walking. I love the family that has grown up around me, like a miracle, and I love the frosting on my half a PopTart.