Friday, February 4, 2011

Maxine Hong Kingston

In the past two months, I have not been asked to show my ID twice. The first time, I forgot my new state ID and begged for the mercy of the doorman to let me in the bar to celebrate my friend Brian's birthday.  The second time I was buying two bottles of wine at Trader Joe's and the checkout guy didn't even almost ask me to prove my legal status.  Not melt down material, but "why not!??" raced through my mind as I left the store and the only possible conclusion is that I no longer look like I am under 21. 

Now, I shouldn't look like I am under 21.   I am not under 21.  I am over 21.  But still.  I am constantly told that I look younger than I am especially after meeting new people.  However, 2014 is only 3 years away and we all know what happens in 2014.  I turn 30.  

Hopefully, everyone is sufficiently annoyed with this post so far.  It's completely moronic.  Unfortunately, it is also completely honest.  Aging worries me as much as that makes me cringe to admit out loud.  I have tried desperately to rise above this commonplace, anti-intellectual societal phobia.  

I wrote this in my poetry class last year:

I want to feel my skin slowly ripple and crease.
first drop of rain on the mist painted pond
glancing through silver strands of hair
while quiet bones settle into moonlit muscles

first drop of rain on the mist painted pond
when my eardrums sift away all unnecessary sound
while quiet bones settle into moonlit muscles
fingers displayed by lace skinned hands

when my eardrums sift away all unnecessary sound
softening heart pulses ignite distant pasts
fingers displayed by lace skinned hands
finale exhale weaving being with wind

softening heart pulses ignite distant pasts
glancing through silver strands of hair
finale exhale weaving being with wind
i want to feel my skin slowly ripple and crease.

A declaration I thought would keep me from buying into this:

It's that damn skin pinch that makes it so appealing, which should creep me out because it's rather gross.  Idk.  Maybe the fact that it's called "Youth Code" and the bottles are all shiny. (Does anyone else think that the blonde looks a bit like the copy girl that Ross slept with when he and Rachel were on a break?) I want to believe in it.  The purchase has yet to be made, and I probably won't actually go through with it since I know these creams are nothing more than regular moisturizers.  But, to be candid, I have purchased an anti-aging product before.  5 (!) years ago when I went to Armenia I paid $100 (it was my first day, I didn't understand the conversion rate) for this:
Armenian Princess Cream
Oooouuuu! Yes, it looks pretty gross.  I lost the lid and cracked the pot (which was a major selling point).  The goo, in its glory days before it began to dry out and evaporate, made my face puffy and red because I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to it.  But I still use it every now and then.  Sigh.  

Taylor and her husband Russell
So even though I'm actively trying to rise above this vain insecurity, I'm having a lot of trouble and 
I fear it will just get 
worse as I inevitably grow older.  

I haven't concealed the fact that I LOVE trashy TV especially the Real Housewives series on Bravo.  The city profiled right now is Beverly Hills and in the season's beginning I had a lot of trouble stomaching Taylor.  38 years old and overly chopped and shaped from various cosmetic surgeries, she spoke freely about having to keep a young and svelte physique to keep her middle aged, douchey husband interested.  She kept repeating that she feared being traded in for a "newer model".  EWWW!  I just can't understand how this is a valid fear.  Do relationships really end because guys think they deserve to fuck women half their age to retain a sense of youth? Do husbands really throw away wives and mothers of their children to keep themselves from feeling the affects of age? 
Kelsey and Camille

Well, yes according to this show.  Now that the finale has aired, Camille and Kelsey Grammar, another couple on the show, are divorcing rather quickly so he can marry the 29 year old flight attendant he knocked up while living away from his wife and their two young children.  My original feelings of disdain for Taylor are apparently not fair because in her social circle at least, the "newer model" fear seems to be very real.  

Now I know that this is a "reality" show and that I shouldn't read so much into it, but at the same time, this is what we as a people are putting out in the world as an example of modern society.  And I do know of people that have personally experienced these types of things in their real life.  So what am I supposed to take away as a young woman?  Where am I to see my value?  Do I only have a few good years left of being fresh and desirable before I wither away and vanish from site?  I can see the appeal of trying to combat this by simply succumbing to it.  It's technically easier to just find peace with the way things are and to find my place within this structure.  The following is a great convo I had with my friend Renee after my last post: 

reneeschultz77: great new blog post
1:10 PM me: thanks!
  you helped!!
  our chats are great
 reneeschultz77: thanks
  you bring up many good points
  i guess im used to the status quo
  i forget
1:11 PM me: everyone is
  myself included
  its hard to think about this stuff
  its easier to just have things the way they are
  but i think that when you really think about it
  everyone wants things to change even if they dont realize it
 reneeschultz77: agreed
1:13 PM and THAT is why your blog is so good
 me: thanks
  and thanks for reading

Me (26) with Renee.
So ignore the ego prompting praise she gives me that I shamelessly love :)  What's important to think about is the fact that we all forget that the way things are don't actually have to be the way things are.  Acceptance for us is voluntary, meaning we are fortunate to have a system that let's us challenge the way things work.  This is a huge luxury that we often take for granted.  It's dangerous to fore go our right to challenge certain issues.  The best thing I have learned from writing my thoughts about gender in this blog is how overwhelmingly receptive lots of different people are about questioning the state of our society.  When I say that everyone wants change, I really fully believe that.  Even men, who seem to benefit the most from the way things are.  That's just a facade though.  Holding women back is just as damaging for the male population.  And our rules for what make men men are completely degrading.

Some of my guy friends find themselves in situations that value perceived macho-ness over actual integrity.  They have to deal with things that aren't fair or appropriate.  What are you supposed to say to an invitation from your boss to a strip club or listening to coworkers talk about their affairs with young secretaries (two real examples that some of my guy friends have experienced)?  Men who see beyond the petty and small definition of masculinity that is advertised as the status quo are ostracized if they speak against it.  

Just as Taylor and Camille feel the need to look as young as possible in order to retain their value in the eyes of their partners, I assume that their husbands have a bit of pressure to stay financially successful to maintain their power among their peers.  And clearly, there are plenty of young women willing to attach themselves to married, older men.  I read an article by a woman who used to do this and she said that the men loved showing off their young mistresses to their friends.  The wife, husband, and "newer model" are all angling to maintain their grip on a piece of youth's authority.  Sure, it's all horrible and indefensible, but it has to be considered when we try to find a way to approach the idea of change.  

Age needs to be looked at in a new way before we can move from the desire to postpone or contain it.  The conversation needs to change.  A leading figure in this progressive pursuit is Maxine Hong Kingston.  

Maxine at 14.
Kingston is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a noted author and feminist.  She has published several books about asserting herself as a strong Chinese-American woman.  Her latest book "I Love A Broad Margin to My Life" takes on her fears about aging and what it means to get older.  

Feminists are held to an unreasonable set of standards.  Because we are working to break many of the stereotypes that have boxed women in, many believe that we shouldn't struggle with the issues we are trying to erase.  Kingston writes this:

"Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?
Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not.
So much depends upon lighting.
A camera crew shot pictures of me — one of
"5 most influential people over 60
in the East Bay." I am homely; I am old.
I look like a tortoise in a curly white wig."

She then explains the shame she has in holding onto such a vain concern.  But it's something we all deal with.  We are told from birth that the value women hold is in their appearance.  We are also told that our value fades as we get older because there isn't beauty in wrinkled skin or gray hair.  Kingston suggests redefining our idea of what “pretty” actually is.  We all have a different definition of what this means to each of us, however, these individual ideas are blanketed under the general belief of acceptable attractiveness.  Time to change the blanket.

Pageant Girls

Gag if you must (Kelly), but I like watching “Toddlers & Tiaras”.  Sorry, but I don’t care.  It’s a world I have never been a part of and I want to understand what makes parents dress their living, breathing children up in outfits that make them look like dolls.  Painting their little faces, spray tanning their skin, pulling and curling their hair. 

Time and time again, episode after episode, in attempts to explain why they think the pageant scene is the best activity for their small daughters, they say that beauty is powerful.  They want their daughters to be considered beautiful so they can marry a rich man, win the Miss America title, and be important in society. 

One mom lamented that “beauty matters.  I was a beauty queen and then I wasn’t.”  Meaning, she grew up and not "beautifully".  Her husband said that if it was a contest between his wife and his daughter, there would be no contest, his daughter would surely win.  I thought that was devastatingly painful to listen to.  What is going to happen to his daughter when she grows up?  Will she struggle with feeling valuable as well?

Before and after the "flipper".
To prepare for an upcoming pageant, a mother enrolled her daughter in a dance class.  The little girls were instructed at the end of the class to repeat the phrase “I love myself the way I am.  There is nothing I need to change.”  On pageant day, this same girl was fitted with her hair piece, given a “flipper” (fake teeth), had eye lashes glued to her lids, caked on make up, and was instructed to “shake it” for the judges so she could take home the big crown.  Her mother said at first it was strange to see her 4 year old dressed like a 17 year old, but that’s what it takes to win.  What lesson stays with her daughter?  The “nothing you need to change” part or the “what it takes to win” part?

And isn’t it interesting that these girls, that can and should only be described as young, are being made to look older?  Inevitably, when they are “older” and on The Real Housewives, they will be trying to look younger.  That’s the cycle of modern femininity.

Personally, I feel that I keep getting better as I get older.  My tastes become more refined.  I know what I want.  I know more of who I am every day that passes.  Because I’m more confident, I feel more beautiful.  When I think of myself as a college student, I sometimes shutter at the lack of experience I had, at how much I took for granted.  Now though, I feel more solid and in control, which makes me feel more valuable.   And why shouldn't this increase as I get older?  Why shouldn't I become better?

Maxine talks about what it means to be an elder.  How our collection of experience over the years can be passed down to the next generation and how we can leave behind knowledge that will last well after we pass on.  She says this is a place that we should strive to achieve and can help us live out our later years in a better more fulfilling way.   Being an elder comes more from experience than from actual age.  She believes that you can become an elder no matter your age, as long as you actively pass along what you learn.  Maxine says this makes you a leader and you can help others find meaning in the everyday life we all face.

Me (17) with my Grandparents.
When I was 16, I caused a terrible car accident that resulted in the loss of a woman's life.  2011 is the 10 year anniversary of this experience and to say that my early adult years were challenging would be a colossal understatement.  The idea of being an elder stands out to me because I feel that I have a relationship with death that most will (thankfully) not experience.  Every year that passes is a year that I can live appreciating my life, the people in it, and the many many luxuries I am privileged to have.  And I can tell others how valuable our lives are because I have gained a unique understanding through my personal tragedy.

Kingston has helped me realize that aging is not simply about losing youth, but about gaining life.  She writes:
                                 "I can accumulate time and lose time?"

At first I thought, "how scary!"  I imagined the hourglass losing sand so quickly.  However, I know that gaining years is something that should never be taken for granted.  It seems like an oxymoron to fear age and also death.  We don't want to die young but we don't want to get old?  When we consider age in the way Kingston challenges us to, it becomes a better use of our mental abilities.  Worrying about wrinkles, while a real concern for most of us, should start to fade once we start appreciating experience as much as youth.   

Maxine at 70.
Kingston is beautiful at 70.    And I feel lucky to live in an era where women are lasting longer in the public eye than ever before.  Betty White has had the best year of her career and she is 89!  40 years ago an actress was considered too old when she turned 30.  Now we have Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Annette Benning, Helen Mirren, and many many other women who just keep getting more roles and exposure.  They are also speaking out against manipulating their looks to fit into the youth standard.  Helena Bonham Carter, who I LOVE, just made a statement against injections and other age "eliminators".

I hope we are on the cusp of a changing tide.  New beauty is all ages.   We are experiencing a change in sentiment about what is expected of women as we grow older.  I know that I'm ready to face my coming years head on and I know that if I make it another day I will simply feel thankful.  Maxine and all the other women who are making sure their voices are heard in their twilight years are going to be my inspiration.  

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