Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Book Review: I'm Too Young to Be This Old

A Fair Trade Book....But...

Title: I’m Too Young to Be This Old

Author: Poppy Smith

Author's web site, with new books listed under "About":

Date: 1997 (Bethany House), 2009 (Revell)

Publisher: Bethany House (1997), Revell (2009)

ISBN: 978-0-8007-3779-0

Length: 220 pages (including endnotes and acknowledgments)

Quote: “Festoons. That’s the medical term for those bags under your eyes. They happen to women your age.”

They happen to women (and men) of any age, including some little girls and boys, who (1) don’t drink enough water, or (2) don’t get enough sleep, or (3) eat food their bodies don’t tolerate, or (4) are ill or coming down with some sort of illness.

Yes, this is another book about midlife that I’ve postponed reading until I get old enough to debunk it. Now I am, and here I go. 

Midlife is a crisis? Please. Bereavement is a crisis. Under-employment, under-payment, non-payment precipitate crises. Menopause is…that much less stuff to buy, that much less time and trouble wasted on the deployment of the stuff you no longer have to buy, no more anemia, full control of your sexuality, and full control of when and whether you choose your mental health days. Since I’ve been fifty, there’ve been times when I might have wanted to be thirty again (mainly because I miss my husband and elders), but I wouldn’t be forty again for all the gold in California. No need to replace my hormones. I’ve never looked back.

“I began to wonder, Maybe building a new sense of identity based on inner beauty would make aging easier…” Smith confesses. Inner beauty is a fine thing to cultivate but, y’know, women do get a choice about looking like all those dowdy elementary school teachers who defined the middle-aged look when we were growing up. No law says anybody has to cut her hair short, get a permanent wave, dye it some unconvincing shade of brown, and dress in polyester. Most of us have some choice about middle-aged spread and bags under our eyes. White hair and dry skin happen when they happen, based partly on genes, but otherwise…

I have to admit to one “midlife crisis” thingie. While walking into the wind with only as many extra layers as feel comfortable at my usual brisk pace, I have been known to tell the people who try to tell me they think I ought to feel cold, “At my age cold is good.” (No, this does not apply to sleeping in rooms where water will freeze on the nightstand. At no age is that really much fun.) A few years ago someone actually blurted out, “Y’mean hot flashes?” I made noncommittal noises. 

The truth is that metabolism tends to slow down gradually with age. I was even more hyperthyroid, and overheated even more easily, as a young woman; I was more hyperthyroid than that, and really suffered from overheating, when I was small enough to have my twiggy little-kid arms forced into a sweater. I’ve actually noticed cold weather more after fifty. By “cold weather” I do not mean, and have never meant, fifty degrees Fahrenheit, which I consider a perfectly respectable temperature to maintain indoors, in winter, or to enjoy walking outdoors in, in spring or autumn, wearing any modest and decent combination of shirt, skirt or slacks, shoes, and underwear of course.

The rest of this book's predictions about midlife are, I’m glad to report, bunk.

“Some days you’re sure your mind has lost a few computer chips…Walking into a room and wondering why I’m there…is all part of the package.” Hello? Are we talking about age fifty or age ninety, here? (I suspect we’re talking about thyroid failure. When my mother was hypothyroid, which in her case was worst in her thirties and forties, she frequently forgot how she’d begun a sentence before she finished it. There are things you can do about this. As we grow older, the subtle slowing down of our thyroid glands can make us feel prematurely "old" long before it reaches the level of clinical hypothyroidism at which medication is prescribed, or needed. Unless and until a doctor tells you you need thyroid supplements, the way to rev up your thyroid is to exercise before breakfast. Mother did, and at 80 she's more coherent and organized than she was at 35.)

“[Y]ou cry at the least provocation. Your family is probably as baffled as you are…Emotional swings are part of the muddled middle years.” They are? Hello? I’m just so glad to be off the energy roller coaster of young-womanhood, I’ve hardly noticed a mood swing since. When I have noticed one, food poisoning has been involved.

“Your children…are now adults.” Well, at least that’s true for most fifty-year-olds, but…it’s supposed to be a problem?

“With our parents living longer than ever before…[w]atching their decline…can be a wrenching part of the middle years.” Whatever age you are when your parents become “old,” it’s not fun. I’ll say this to anyone who thinks that losing parents is part of the “midlife crisis”: Try losing a parent before midlife—it’s even worse, because your parent was younger, and you have more time left to miss him or her.

“Your marriage…” Don’t go there. I married an “aging male” with my eyes wide open to the probability that I was going to have to watch him turn grey-haired and wrinkly. There are worse things than that, too. He looked dang good at sixty-three until, overnight, he started looking like a zombie. For dying, sixty-three is horribly young.

At this point I have to observe that this little cautionary book for the young (as if post-menstrual anemia weren’t enough of a downer for the young) might be a wee bit misleading, but it wouldn’t be bad if…yes, I double-checked…the blurb on the back cover hadn’t promised that it was going to be funny. Jean Kerr made midlife funny. Erma Bombeck made midlife funny. Dave Barry made midlife funny. George Burns made old age funny. Smith’s own midlife seems to have been rough, her generalizing about its being normal when it evidently wasn’t is even more unfortunate, but that any publisher thought this wail was funny is…hard to believe. She must make it sound funny when she's speaking, but in print Smith’s idea of “funny” seems to be to call a mother “a mom.” I’m sorry, but it takes more than “a mom” to make me laugh.

This is not a funny book. It’s a book of Christian counselling, with some practical checklists for things people might reasonably want to prepare for (helping adult offspring move out, caring for geriatric parents) and some…misguidance.

Smith probably doesn’t realize that diet and exercise can restore thyroid function. Nor does she seem to know that we don’t control how things affect us by just “looking back and letting go” of everything, but only by fixing the facts and letting the feelings follow. By ignoring really bad things in order to “let go of negative feelings”—a buzz phrase that usually identifies sloppy thinking, since “negative feelings” are the feelings we don’t have, and the unpleasant feelings we do have are positive—we don’t improve things outside or inside our minds. I’ve seen people focus on their feelings and deny the unpleasant truth. What happens is that their external circumstances get drearier as they get crazier.

Smith cites Genesis 37-50 in the Bible, which does describe the years Joseph spent “suffering the painful consequences of his brothers’ hatred. But when his brothers were within his power to punish, he fully forgave them. ‘You intended to harm me…but God intended it for good’.” The spiritual value of this powerful story should not be wasted by misuse. 

First of all we should note that Joseph was not just making Pollyanna noises; he had received God’s reward, and his brothers had received God’s punishment, for what they’d done. Joseph didn’t need to make a long speech about it. 

Second, we should bear in mind that Joseph had had his full share of fun with his brothers, testing the sincerity of their repentance, before he let them know who he was. When they knew that, they needed to hear no more.

These two steps cannot be skipped by anyone trying to rush to the third step, where they all basked in the emotional feeling that everything had finally worked out fine-fine-fine.

When the harm done to us was material, it will not be resolved by any amount of focus on emotions. No matter how much we might wish to, we can’t just bounce from “You cheated me out of X amount of money” to “Everything is fine.” We can release the emotion of anger before the cheater grovels at our feet, holding out the cash s/he owes us, with interest, and says “I did wrong and I humbly beg your gracious forgiveness”; we can find other things to do and get on with our lives, but—for the good of ourselves or the cheater or society as a whole—we cannot say that everything is fine. We can be cheerful—no doubt there are plenty of other things we can reasonably feel happy about—but  it’s not okay that this person owes us this amount of money. It makes things worse, not better, to pretend that that situation is going to be satisfactory until the cheater has repented and repaid.

By the time we get to the chapter on "moving forward" we realize that all this book is going to be is yet another version of the standard Psychological Self-Help Book of the 1970s, only addressed to an older audience, with a few notes on planning for the end of life tacked in at the end.

How bad is that? Your call. In the English-speaking world I think it would be extremely difficult for any baby-boomer to have missed the standard psychological self-help books (or the psychotherapy process) during the 1970s and/or 1980s. For us this book is a rerun. But maybe you could use a refresher course, one more psychological self-help book with little thought questions about what you’d like to do for a post-retirement career, just like the ones about what you’d like to do for a first career when you were fifteen. Or maybe you’re actually a member of the younger generation, who, by and large, missed out on the psychotherapy process—which, with all its faults, did have educational value—because the insurance industry decided it was more convenient, albeit in a few cases deadly, to pay for a pills-only approach to psychological help. In either of those cases I’m Too Young to Be This Old may be just the book you need.

I did not need another psychological self-help book. I was looking for a funny book, and for me I’m Too Young to Be This Old was a disappointment.

Someone out there, however, has never yet taken the time to unbury all of her memories and reflect on all of her successes, failures, talents, and dreams, and for that person this book may be worth its (light) weight in gold.

So, if you want a gently used paperback copy of I'm Too Young to Be This Old, please send the usual $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either address at the very bottom of the screen, out of which we'll send $1 to Smith or a charity of her choice. If you want only this one book, send $11 by Paypal (salolianigodagewi is the address from which you'll get the appropriate Paypal address) or $10 by U.S. postal money order, in which case the post office will collect its own surcharge. You may, however, browse around and add other books to the package, as many as we can squeeze in, for the same $5 shipping charge, which would bring the cost of six books the size of the "Mass Market Paperback" edition to $35 (or $36), and if all six were Fair Trade Books we'd send $6 to the writers included in the package and/or their charities.