Woodstock revisited

In her new book on aging, women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup advises that if you want to stay young, don’t ask for senior discounts. These reminders that you’re old enough for AARP will soon have you thinking of yourself as aged and infirm.

In the same vein, here’s another piece of advice for keeping your mind-set youthful: Don’t go to museums showcasing events that you’re old enough to have witnessed firsthand. There is nothing like seeing a gaggle of ninth graders gawking at “historical” items that might have come out of your junk drawer to make you feel like a geezer.

That’s my takeaway after visiting The Museum at Bethel Woods at the site of the legendary Woodstock music festival—three days of peace, love and the mightiest collection of bands ever assembled. Just across the border in Sullivan County, NY, Bethel Woods is a place I’ve long meant to see. So it was that my friend Joyce and I decided to meet there recently for lunch.

Neither of us made it to Woodstock. Joyce was out of the country in 1969 and I was working that weekend. In retrospect, it’s probably just as well. Although the music was amazing, as seen in the movie and subsequent album, I don’t think I would have liked the crowds, the drugs or the mud. Even in my best Emporium India dresses, I never passed as a hippie. I was more in the category of uptight white chick.

As Joyce predicted, the museum café had fare named after musical groups (Country Joe and the Tuna Fish wrap). But while the food was good and the setting lovely—manicured fields in every direction—we found the exhibits underwhelming. Much of the installation consisted of multimedia displays and videos about the period and the music. But if you lived through the Vietnam War, and grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, these were anticlimactic.

There were few actual artifacts other than ticket stubs and iconic 1960s albums, many of which I had bought when new and still own. The orange caftan made “in the style” of the one Richie Havens wore to open the festival looked like someone had run it up on their sewing machine yesterday.

The flower-power VW Beetle and psychedelic bus were awfully clean. Indeed, a museum staffer came in to sponge the seats and walls of the latter while we were inside, something I’m betting never happened in 1969.

Bethel Woods is mainly a venue for music. Lots of ‘60s rockers appear, including—this summer—Neil Young and Jackson Browne, along with contemporary artists. A museum visit might best be enjoyed as an adjunct to your concert experience, not as a special trip.

A recent study suggested that most people stop listening to new music at around the age of 33. Maybe a season ticket to Bethel Woods, with its roster of old and new performers, could jar us out of that trap. Just don’t ask for a senior discount.

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And God created dandelions

You can tell it’s spring by the blossoming of the pear trees on Broad Street and the carpet of dandelions blanketing my yard. Is it my imagination, or are there more of these cheeky yellow flowers than there were last year? Did the hard winter give rise to a bumper crop? Or does the abundance signal my years of failure at controlling them? They seem to have multiplied, loaves-and-fishes style.

As every gardener knows, the humble dandelion—formally, Taraxacum officinale—is one of the most tenacious plants around. It gives kudzu and poison ivy a run for the money in terms of invasiveness. The dandelion’s tuberous roots, which grip the earth with a clawlike hold, must be taken out whole or you wind up doing the opposite of what you intend, and prompt new growth instead of stopping it. Roots can be a foot long—monstrous, in a way, and yet you can’t help but admire their stamina. If only my roses and lilies were this robust!

We don’t use herbicides, so I weed by hand. I start with the beds at the front of the property, digging out the dandelions with a long, pointed, metal stick expressly designed for the job. Then I work my way up the plots lining the path to the front door, silently cursing the fools who planted all these gardens—aka, our younger selves. It seemed like a good idea 18 years ago, when we bought the house. But now, not so much.

Next come the foundation gardens in front and the strip that runs along the side of the house. There’s a small plot for herbs by the back door, a hummingbird garden in the backyard and an iris bed at the rear of the property.

Needless to say, it takes a while. I can’t weed all the gardens in a day. As for the lawn, we’ve pretty much given up. If you just mow everything that grows, the end result is a blur of green, and that will have to be good enough.

Of course, there’s another way to look at dandelions. A couple of years ago, I spotted dandelion greens on the produce list of the food coop at the health food store. Marie, the owner, told me they were one of the best foods available for cleansing the liver. In fact, “The Herb Book” by John Lust recommends dandelion juice or tea for digestive problems, arthritis and even insomnia, and includes recipes for an eight-week “dandelion cure” made with fresh root.

It seemed silly to buy dandelions when I had so many free ones at hand. So I began picking dandelion leaves right out of the yard and using them in soups, stir fries and green shakes. Friends pick them too. One likes them in salads and another, in pasta with garlic and olive oil.

Maybe instead of arduously yanking them out, I can find a way to turn my bounty of dandelions into a cash crop. I wonder if I’m zoned for a dandelion farm.

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As ageless as Adaline

If you’re looking for a chick flick to go see with your girlfriends, I recommend “The Age of Adaline,” which I caught last week with my friend Jessica. This movie is the very definition of female fantasy—it’s about a woman who never ages.

A car crash plunges Adaline into icy water, but she is revived from hypoxia by a massive, Frankensteinian lightning strike. After that, Adaline remains 29 years old for eight decades, giving star Blake Lively the opportunity to wear a variety of period costumes and hair styles.

But before you get too lost in envying Adaline’s good fortune (while remembering how hot you, too, looked at 29), the movie delivers the downside. Being forever young can wear thin as you watch your friends, relatives and lovers all age while you remain unchanged.

People start to wonder, which is why Adaline changes identities every decade, rebooting her life again and again with a new job, new name and new place to live. That’s not as much fun as it seems. Think how exhausting it would be for a baby boomer to start over as a Millennial. You’d have to master a whole new mind-set and lingo, and maybe even get a tattoo.

The weirdness of being ageless is driven home in the character of Adaline’s daughter, played by Ellen Burstyn. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the 82-year-old actress calling the twentysomething Lively “mommy.” Things get even stranger when Adaline falls in love with a hunky young man whose father is played by Harrison Ford. I won’t tell you more so as not to spoil it for you, but be assured that love conquers all in the end.

Agelessness was on my mind even before I saw the movie, thanks to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s newest book, “Goddesses Never Age.” I missed Northrup’s PBS special but watched a couple of her videos promoting her ideas online, so I ordered the book, despite my reservations about the “goddess” language.

In fact, I was a little surprised at how New Agey the author—an OB/GYN who is a trusted specialist in women’s health—has become. Along with advice on diet, exercise and medical issues, Northrup talks of angels and astrology, chakras and shamans. She writes of prayers, affirmations and the mind/body connection. She has a lot to say about the Argentine tango, her own favorite form of exercise.

Northrup isn’t saying that women can stay 29 forever, like Adaline. But she points out that to some degree, the way we age is within our control. Inactivity and sugar will make you older faster, she warns. So will an outlook that equates aging with deterioration. The two are not necessarily paired, Northrup says. You can be older—or rather, ageless—and vital.

Northrup offers many hints and tips for ageless living, including one piece of advice I really like: When people ask your age, just say you were born in the 20th century. Even Adaline could go with that formulation.


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Reading challenge

Interested in participating in the book challenge I described in my previous post (“A 21st century book club”)? Here are the 50 categories of books to read; the idea is to check off as many as you can in a year. I’m told the challenge originated at GoodReads, but I couldn’t find it there. So I’ve just cut and pasted from my friend’s e-mail. Here goes:

[ ] A book with 500 pages
[ ] A classic romance (Suggested authors: Jane Austen, Agnes Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Georgette Heyer, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Barbara Cartland, Elizabeth Gaskell)
[ ] A book that became a movie
[ ] A book published this year
[ ] A book with a number in the title
[ ] A book written by someone age under 30
[ ] A book with nonhuman characters
[ ] A funny book
[ ] A book with a female author
[ ] A mystery or thriller

[ ] A book with a one-word title
[ ] A book of short stories
[ ] A book set in a different country
[ ] A nonfiction book
[ ] A popular author’s first book
[ ] A book you have not read from an author you love
[ ] A book a friend recommended
[ ] A Pulitzer Prize winning book
[ ] A book based on a true story
[ ] A book at the bottom of your to-read list

[ ] A book your mom loves (loved)
[ ] A book that scares you
[ ] A book more than 100 years old
[ ] A book chosen entirely on its cover
[ ] A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
[ ] A memoir
[ ] A book you can finish in a day
[ ] A book with antonyms in the title
[ ] A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
[ ] A book that came out the year you were born

[ ] A book with bad reviews
[ ] A trilogy
[ ] A book from your childhood
[ ] A book with a love triangle
[ ] A book set in the future
[ ] A book set in high school
[ ] A book with a color in the title
[ ] A book that made you cry
[ ] A book with magic
[ ] A graphic novel

[ ] A book by an author you’ve never read before
[ ] A book you own but have never read
[ ] A book that takes place in your hometown (or close to where you live)
[ ] A book originally written in a different language
[ ] A book set during Christmas
[ ] A book written by an author with your same initials
[ ] A play
[ ] A banned book
[ ] A book based on or turned into a TV show
[ ] A book you started but never finished

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A 21st century book club

For someone who reads as much as I do, it’s weird that I’ve never latched on to a real, rocking-good book club. I used to envy my friend Stephanie’s active and long-lived club, whose members chose interesting titles like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and had a great time socializing too. But Steph lived at a distance, so joining them wasn’t an option.

One time a group of us at work tried a book club, but it quickly petered out. I sadly chose a clunker for our debut book—something a friend recommended that turned out to be just midlist schmaltz. No one liked it, so we went in the opposite direction for book two, picking a Paul Auster novel. It was so arcane and erudite that there wasn’t much discussion. What could one say?

We finally got off the ground with our third choice, an Anne Tyler. But even though we enjoyed reading and discussing it, this book was our last, so far as I can remember, and the fledgling book club coasted to a stop.

More recently, a friend invited me to join her book club, locally. But this group reads mostly novels and I rarely read fiction now, except for mysteries, a genre rarely chosen by reading circles.

But I may have finally found a book group that leaves me the freedom to read what I wish and doesn’t even demand that I attend meetings. My friend Catherine recently sent out an e-mail inviting some of us to join her in a challenge she found online. It’s a checklist of 50 books in specific—rather random—categories, such as a book with 500 pages, one with a one-word title, “a funny book” and “a book set during Christmas.”

I started my challenge on April 1 and so far I’ve read four and a half books (almost done with No. 5). Three of them, as it happens, are by the same author, Arnaldur Indridason, an Icelandic mystery writer (categories: a book set in a different country, a book with a one-word title and a book originally written in a different language). I’m on an Iceland kick since our trip there, and I thank my hairdresser Janie for pointing me toward this writer. If I retrospectively set March instead of April as my challenge start date, I could add another: I read Indridason’s “Jar City” on the plane going over (category: a book recommended by a friend).

I can get a little OCD about lists, so I know I’ll want to complete this one. On the other hand, there are some categories I won’t touch, like horror and science fiction. Just not my thing.

I long ago vowed that life was too short to read books I don’t like. I’ll give any book 100 pages. If I’m not hooked by then, out it goes. The challenge even has a category for that: a book you started but never finished. There’s an Ian McEwan on my night table right now that would fit.


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What not to wear

It’s a good thing “Mad Men” is calling it a day at circa 1970, because the clothing is still beautiful then. Any further into the decade and Don Draper might put on a leisure suit, and I don’t think we want to see that. Or, edging into the ‘80s, can you imagine Joan or Peggy in Dress for Success suits with massive shoulder pads? Well, maybe Peggy.

I’m trying to remember if the clothes in real life were as scrumptious as they look on this show or—also from Sunday night TV—on “Call the Midwife,” a British series that’s set a decade earlier, in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Though the locale is a London slum and thus, far from glamorous, some of those midwives don amazing outfits when they’re off-duty.

I do recall my mother looking smashing in the years these shows portray. Mom was an expert seamstress and she made a lot of our clothes: structured dresses with full skirts, darts and complicated necklines for herself, and pouffy dresses and poodle skirts for me.

Skirts were a wardrobe necessary, because girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school. In high school, a group of us tested that edict by conspiring to show up one day in culottes. Culottes aren’t really pants. But then again, they’re not really skirts, either. We all got sent home to change.

It seems to me that my mother went through more style changes during her lifetime than I have in mine. She looked great in the short skirts and tailored gabardine of the 1940s, then blossomed into the more fulsome look of the glamorous 1950s. Rhinestones suited her.

Mom adapted to the changes of the subsequent decades as well and always managed to look chic and pulled together. In later life, though, she chose comfort and comfort alone. In her 80s, sweat pants were her fashion statement.

For my generation, meanwhile, it’s all about jeans.

By the time I got to college, I wore them pretty much every day, and I haven’t taken them off since. Jeans are the baby boom woman’s uniform. We wear them with turtlenecks in the winter, T-shirts and cute tops in the summer. We wear them all the time, even though we’re now in our 50s and 60s, and I don’t anticipate trading mine in any time soon.

One time my cousin Karen and I went shopping and spotted some outfits reminiscent of things we wore in the 1970s. “If you’re old enough to have worn it the first time it was in style, you’re too old to wear it now,” Karen said.

When it comes to miniskirts, platform shoes and bikinis, I agree. But there’s always an exception, and that would be tunic tops—the gauzy, ethnic-inspired ones I used to buy at Emporium India back in the day. I still love them, and there’s lots of them out there to choose from beyond the ones made in India.

You don’t have to be a hippie to wear one. Do you?

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Time capsule, complete with stamp

A couple of weeks ago I got a padded envelope in the mail from Canada. The return address was my friend Margo’s in Ontario. I’ve known Margo for 40 years but haven’t seen her in at least 30—not that it matters. She’s one of those friends you connect with on a deep level, and the bond lasts a lifetime.

Margo is a writer and I assumed the envelope contained a chapbook or maybe a magazine with one of her articles in it. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find a stack of my old letters to her inside. There were nine in all, the earliest dating all the way back to the 1970s.

Margo was doing a major downsizing, she explained in a note, clearing out drawers, cupboards and closets. Hence the letters, accompanied by a Xeroxed article about how today’s digital correspondence—all those e-mails and texts—is so evanescent and vulnerable to loss that it might well become a serious problem for future historians. Indeed, when Margo and I write to each other nowadays, it’s by e-mail. I’m not sure how I would go about retrieving our trove of messages from the Gmail server, should I want to see them again.

Rereading the letters written by my younger self was an interesting and at times unsettling experience. The first, chronologically, described the run-up to the first Christmas after the death of my father. I sounded pretty depressed. The second told of the implosion of my first marriage a couple of years later, and of the professional and personal challenges I encountered upon moving to New York.

What interested me wasn’t so much the content, but the alternate reality the letters revealed, especially those relating to my first husband. My actions and attitudes as disclosed in the letters didn’t fully square with the story I’ve told myself about the marriage’s end.

I’ve been reading the late journalist David Carr’s searing memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” about his years as a drug addict and how he crawled out of that life. The book is all about memory and the tricks it plays. Carr tackled his own story like a reporter, interviewing eyewitnesses (friends, colleagues, lovers) and obtaining documents (arrest records, paperwork from stints in rehab). He found that his memory didn’t jibe with the facts.

“We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences—unknowingly or unconsciously—in light of what we now know or believe,” says David L. Schacter in his book “The Seven Sins of Memory.” In other words, as Carr puts it, we remember only the stories we can live with.

It’s a great corrective to revisit these forgotten experiences and try to tease out what’s true, minus the sugar coating. You get a fuller, clearer picture of your life. I’ve returned the favor by sending Margo’s letters back to her—the handful I could find. I might learn a lot about myself and my friends by rereading all the old letters I’ve kept…and then returning to sender.

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Is it time to plant vegetables yet?

The snow has barely melted and there could be some cold nights ahead. You just never know in April. Nevertheless, it’s time to start thinking about peas and lettuce, the earliest residents of the vegetable garden, and pansies too, for color.

I use the term “vegetable garden” loosely, because strictly speaking, I don’t have one. My yard doesn’t lend itself to the fenced plots, container gardens and mini-greenhouses that friends set up in theirs.

My sunny front yard is filled with flowers and shrubs, but you can’t grow tomatoes there. It’s just not done. Front yards are all about lawn and order. Vegetables belong in back. In fact, I’ve seen the occasional news story about folks getting fined in different parts of the country for turning their front yards into vegetable patches. Cukes, squash and beans apparently don’t meet the aesthetic standards of gated communities and snobby municipalities.

But our backyard isn’t right for vegetables. For starters, nearly half the space is given over to the turkey mound, aka onsite septic system. I’ve always hated this grassy knoll. To be sure, it does an important job. But it hogs some prime real estate in the process.

We park out back too, and then there’s a wee patio. All that’s left for planting is a small plot outside the back door that proved too shady for herbs, its original inhabitants, and a strip of garden along the side of the house that’s narrow but gets some decent sun.

Although my husband and I seem to do well with flowers, we can’t say the same for vegetables. Last year we tried tomatoes in patio pots stationed by the driveway, where it’s sunny. They were a flop and the yield was pathetic. Weirdly, the volunteer plants in the back door garden produced far more tomatoes and kept it up into October. These hardy individuals sprang up out of seeds dropped the year before, a miracle of audacity.

There’s another volunteer in this same garden, a kale-type leafy-green plant. A couple of years ago I bought a mixed pack of lettuces for fresh salads. Lettuces do well when it’s cooler, which is why this shaded garden is a good spot for them.

Most of the tender lettuces died off in August, when the yard turns into the Gobi Desert. But this one particular type hung on. When the weather cooled, it began to grow again. The leaves weren’t as tender as they had been in spring. Dark green, with deeply serrated edges, they had a peppery aftertaste—a little too harsh for salad, but a great addition to soups, curries and stews.

The snow came and buried them for several months and I thought they were goners. But amazingly, they came back the following season and in fact, had spread. We had more plants than we originally put in. I’ll be interested to see what happens this year—whether those dead-looking stumps I see out the back door will spring into new green life as the weather warms.

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Iceland: Earth, wind and fire

We’re back from our Iceland adventure, and the trip—at six days—just wasn’t long enough. There’s so much more I’d like to do and see there that I want to go back. Soon.

Why visit Iceland, in the winter no less? Why not choose someplace tamer—London, Paris or Amsterdam, perhaps, or maybe some palm tree island in the Caribbean with white-sand beaches? Iceland is so much more challenging than any of them, with weather that changes from brisk sunshine to hail to wind-driven rain that pelts you horizontally, back to sunny skies again—all in the course of 10 minutes. It wasn’t a relaxing vacation, but it was a refreshing one.

Ostensibly, the colorful spectacle of the northern lights was our main reason for going. But as it turned out, we didn’t get to see the aurora in its full splendor—only a hint of changes in the night sky with a vague green tint behind them. The sky was a tease, like a Victorian lady showing a flash of ankle. And you know what? I didn’t mind.

Because it turned out that Iceland had something else to offer, and that was the raw, primordial experience of being in a land that’s still a work in progress. Iceland sits atop a vent in the Earth’s crust, so it’s very active geologically. The Earth is churning and burning here, freezing and flooding, bubbling and boiling, as if still not sure what it wants to be when it grows up. Since the very land beneath your feet is so alive, you find that you are, too.

We saw volcanoes flanked by endless lava fields; snow-capped mountains; and lakes, streams and pools of a particular unearthly blue that comes about when sunshine meets the natural silica in the water. We saw the majestic waterfall called Gullfoss, a crashing double cataract still partially encased in winter ice.

There were geysers and bubbling mud pots; strange, looming cliffs of volcanic basalt; puffs in the distance where hot springs casually threw off steam as herds of sturdy Icelandic horses grazed unconcernedly nearby.

The continents meet and greet in Iceland. You can walk from North America to Europe literally in one step. Rifts and gorges, some surmounted by bridges, signal the action of the Earth’s unseen infrastructure as the great tectonic plates relentlessly pull apart, centimeter by centimeter, year by year. The land is in a constant state of flux. Icelanders told us there’s so much turmoil below the surface that seismic instruments measure as many as 100 tiny earthquakes per day, none of them perceivable aboveground. No wonder Jules Verne set “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in Iceland.

On the flight home, Icelandair was selling traditional Icelandic chocolate Easter eggs, which are filled, piñata-like, with little goodies. For a lucky traveler or two, the airline had tucked in plane tickets. Naturally, I bought one. We are waiting for Easter to open it. If we are Lotto lucky, that second trip will be within reach sooner rather than later.

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What’s on your anti-bucket list?

I don’t have a formal bucket list, but I’m about to visit a place that would be on it if I did: Iceland, where we hope to view (weather permitting) the weird and mysterious phenomenon of the Northern Lights, one of the wonders of the natural world. Score one for us.

The term bucket list is terribly overused. But behind the cliché, the concept is instructive. Not only does the idea get you thinking about life goals or cherished daydreams, it also forces you to confront the fact that one day, it will be too late. We are living on borrowed time. Why wait?

I’d like to see Rome again before I die, and visit the village my grandfather came from. An old high school friend lives in Italy, so traveling there is a real possibility. And then there’s Poland, the country of my father’s parents. Maybe Warsaw and Krakow should go on the bucket list too.

If it’s fun to fantasize about things to do, it’s just as interesting to list the opposite—stuff you don’t want to do before you die. Call it the anti-bucket list.

Where to start? There are so many things I hope never to experience, like major surgery, widowhood or being the victim of a natural disaster. But a lot of what happens in life is accidental, unforeseeable and completely beyond our control. Better to fill my anti-bucket list with stuff I do have a choice about.

In travel, there are many places I have absolutely no desire to visit, such as Iraq, Antarctica and Manitoba. Meanwhile, I stand firm by my lifelong avoidance of bungee jumping and sky diving. Friends have done the latter and loved it, but I’m afraid of heights and don’t trust small planes in the best of times, never mind jumping out of one.

I never want to do a triathlon, but I wouldn’t put a marathon on the anti-bucket list. True, at my age I’m unlikely to become a distance runner—not with these knees. Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s to never say never.

I have no urge to climb Mount Everest or, closer to home, hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. If I wanted a thru-hike, I’d pick the Camino in northern Spain, a 490-mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Maybe I’ll get there one day.

I don’t want to study calculus or make pie crust from scratch. I might learn a new language—but not if it means learning a new alphabet. I won’t read “Finnegan’s Wake”; couldn’t get through “Ulysses.” And I hope never to play a Vegas slot machine again.

Finally, I never again want to work late on Thursdays, as I did at my last staff job. It was a weekly newspaper, and Thursday meant deadlines. We’d work till 8 or 9 p.m., sometimes later, to get it all done. One thing about being older that beats being younger: you can just say no to a schedule like that.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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