Archive for February, 2011

Last year I wrote a piece entitled, “Is Stupid the New Black?” which attracted quite a bit of attention, due in part to its provocative title. Unfortunately,some missed the fashion reference (“Grey is the new black”) and thought I was engaged in racial stereotyping (whoa). Most readers shared my concern about the deliberate promotion of “stupid”, i.e. regressive, reactionary or irrational ideas, especially in times of unease.

Now I’m wondering: Is it time for “Is Stupid the New Black, Part II”?

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The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates has written a book about losing her husband, following in the heart-broken footsteps of many other such memoirs, such as The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Oates’ book, A Widow’s Story, has been generally, although carefully, praised save for one review by New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who (bravely or foolishly; take your pick) questions author’s sincerity of purpose.

Maslin is careful not to criticize Oates’ grief process but rather takes aim at the lack of emotional meaning or depth in A Widow’s Story. Oates’ book is “far less fastidious… flabbier and flightier” than Didion’s work, Maslin asserts, and includes threadbare metaphysics…much minutiae…and worrisome signs of haste.” She also finds Oates’ selective retelling to be deceptive. For example, the author includes poignant and poignantly funny stories about grieving but fails to go deeply into her forty-seven year marriage. A far more grievous omission, in Maslin’s view, is the fact that Oates became engaged eleven months after her husband died and is now happily (one hopes) married. “How delicately must we tread around this situation,” Maslin asks? All of this leads Maslin to conclude that Oates may have been seeking to “willfully [tap] into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market.”

Full stop.

It’s difficult for me to distance myself from these kinds of memoirs—as a writer or as a widow. My first reaction is almost always a distressing cocktail of anger, despair, envy, and confusion.

The writer in me asks: How did there come to be a subset of memoir about spousal loss? How do we rate and rank these books? How do we rate or rank the loss? Are those with greater command of the language or the market share the ones who are most “qualified” to write about this subject? Does it depend on circumstance, or on context? Was my experience with grief and mourning worthy of a  share of that “lucrative loss-of spouse market,” even though I was told way back in 2001 that the story of a middle-aged childless widow was far less compelling than that of a young mother of three whose husband had (also) died in the 9/11 attacks?

The widow in me wonders: How long?

The Oates book and Maslin’s review have generated a fair amount of blogosphere discussion about the grieving process. Author Ruth Conigsberg insisted that “…these memoirs are…highly subjective snapshots that don’t teach us much about how we typically grieve, nor more importantly, for how long.” Conigsberg, it should be noted, has her own book concerning the myth of the stages of grief.

She notes optimistically that many older people do recover from losing a spouse to natural causes fairly quickly and even remarry, as did Oates. Her findings are not to be confused with studies that show younger people who lose their spouses in traumatic situations and remain widows or widowers are six times more likely to experience dementia.


Nine and a half years after my traumatic loss, I float in a sea of doubt. I don’t even know if I’m still grieving or if something else is at play. Was my marriage at forty an anomaly, a one-time event? The more time that passes, the more I circle back to “before”—before I met the man I would marry; the years spent in the company of inappropriate, uninterested, non-committal men while yearning for the comfort of a stable relationship. I spent, will have spent, will spend, more years alone than in a romantic partnership. The marriage, as joyful, as sustained, as relieved and as (foolish me) safe as it made me feel, was a blip on the radar screen of my life, an accident of fate. I float, I coast and I wonder how I can draw any kind of illustrative, instructive or illuminating lessons from the before, the “during”, or the after.

The writer in me thinks: Oates is a well-known, well-respected writer and professor at Princeton University. She’s out there. It might have been more, what, helpful, to let us know her process included finding happiness again so quickly. Then again, she wasn’t necessarily writing a self-help book, just an accounting.

The widow in me understands: Any memoir I write would be so unresolved as to be thoroughly unsatisfactory, even to me.

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As I prepare for my entrance into what are colloquially known as “the cranky years,” I’m becoming especially sensitive about the marketing—or lack thereof—of services and products to the senior population. Besides pills, pads, portfolios and various insurance vehicles (including my personal favorite, the reverse mortgage, in which at least one of the participants hopes for an early death), pickings are slim. Apparently, people over sixty don’t give a damn about music, art, exercise or, god forbid, fashion–okay, except for Lauren Hutton and maybe Steven Tyler.

Lauren Hutton (image: marie claire) and Steven Tyler (image: TV Guide)

But baby boomers—and God  help me, I am one—are not going gentle into that good night and designers and manufacturers are belatedly turning their attention to developing stuffs we future oldsters don’t yet know we want.

Yeah, fine; it’s about time.  But now this: in order to assist product designers and marketers, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab has designed the “Age Gain Now Empathy System,” an ungainly turn of phrase that allows the developers to playfully call it AGNES (presumably after someone’s grandmother).  AGNES is actually a bulky, space-age looking suit with various restraints, harnesses, weights and other features that are suppose to mimic age-related limitations. According to the AgeLab website, AGNES “has been calibrated to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, dexterity and strength of a person in their mid-70s.”

 “I’d rather be writing a paper”

I’m all for products that, in the words of an upbeat health policy analyst, “allow for wellness and prevention and lifestyle enhancement.” But I’m flabbergasted that MIT would squander its resources developing an ugly-looking space costume that twenty-year-old students can wear around to understand what seventy-five feels like. Why not ask a 75-year-old?

Better yet, why not develop a system that allows those in their mid-seventies (or those who feels that way) to experience being twenty again? See, I had this idea…

Introducing the “Age Reversal Now Illusion Experiment” or ARNIE® (patent pending)

 The ARNIE® features a Lithium battery-powered propulsion system that keeps its wearing moving along. Double torsion springs absorb excess stress while high-capacity electric cylinders offer the strength of a college football linebacker. Glasses provide optimal vision using digital SLR technology. A small onboard computer monitors vital signs and supplies infusions of B-6, B-12, glucosamine, Viagra, and, for an additional cost, medical marijuana via a discrete, non-invasive transfusion system. The deluxe version also included New York Times crosswords, Sudoku, and reruns of “Jeopardy.” Best of all, the ARNIE® emits a powerful mind control beam that can reach up to 500 people at a time and creates the illusion that the wearer is a young, hot, twenty-something. Comfortable and lightweight, the ARNIE® can be worn year-round (even to the beach!) and folds to fit comfortably in your pocket or handbag for those times when you might want to take advantage of senior citizen discounts.

 Come on, MIT! Let’s put those research dollars to good use!

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