program notes for the Second Wind Tour

Every speaker on the tour gets a two-page spread in a fat print program.  Some entries are formal, others touchy-feely. Mine’s below. How refreshing not to have to soft-pedal my bio or my politics; the choice of the pull quote (in bold) was theirs.


I didn’t set out to become a writer. I went into publishing because I loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas. A funny thing happened on the way to a respectable editorial career. I had a weakness for the kind of jokes that make you cringe and guffaw at the same time, my boss kept telling me to write them down, and the collection turned into the best-selling paperback of 1982. I was a clue on “Jeopardy” (“Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes?” Answer: “Blanche Knott.”), and, as Blanche, made publishing history by occupying four of the fifteen spots on the New York Times bestseller list.

I am unafraid of running against the cultural current. My joke books came out during the heyday of political correctness (My favorite rejection letter read, “Publish this? We can’t even Xerox this!”). My first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was rejected by 12 publishers in 36 hours before being published by HarperCollins in 1997. (Yes, I was one of them.) Ms. magazine called Cutting Loose “rocket fuel for launching new lives,” and it landed me on Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum enemies list. More importantly, women from all over the country thanked me for saving their lives. The book also got me invited to join the board of the  Council on Contemporary Families, a group of distinguished family scholars. I also joined the Artist’s Network of Refuse & Resist that originated the anti-Iraq-invasion slogan and performance pieces titled “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” As a contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine, I went to Laos to cover a village getting Internet access via a bicycle-powered computer. Since 2000 I’ve been on staff at the American Museum of Natural History, where I write about everything under the sun.

The catalyst for Cutting Loose was a chance comment by my attorney that more and more of his clients were like me — women who realized they didn’t have to stay in unhappy marriages. After two minutes online, I was astonished to learn that women initiate two-thirds of divorces. Was marriage so terrible, or divorce not so bad? Why the discrepancy between our notion of how women fared and the happy and energized reality? 

A similar question gave rise to my present mission: why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different? Just as it’s hard to have an egalitarian marriage in a patriarchal culture, it’s hard to age well in a profoundly ageist one. Ageism—discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age—relegates older Americans to second-class status. Few even blink when older people are described as worthless. Or incompetent, or boring, or sexless, or even repulsive. 

We all internalize these attitudes, and they make growing older in America much harder than it has to be. The more clearly we see these social forces at work—in ourselves and the world at large—the easier it is to envision alternative, more positive, more accurate narratives. So I’m on a crusade to raise awareness of ageism in America and get people young and old to join me in speaking out against it.  (Ageism also affects young people: “kids are like that,” for example.) I’ve been thinking out loud about aging and ageism since 2007 on my This Chair Rocks blog where you can also find my research. I started speaking on the subject in July, 2012, which is also when I started the Q&A blog Yo, Is This Ageist? Go ahead, ask me. 

When I started this project, I was in Terror Mode: I saw aging as a grim slide into depression, diapers, and dementia. To my surprise, the more I learned about late life, the better it looked. I slid to the other end of the spectrum: “Successful Aging” Mode: enough spinach, Sudoku, and speed-walking can “put old on hold.” Eventually I figured out that all aging is successful, otherwise you’re dead. I’ll probably end up with the vast majority in the middle: muscles and memory slowed, but able to function effectively and enjoy life to the end. It’s a work in progress. Come on in, the water’s fine.

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