Things Fall Apart: An Excerpt From Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop
Do you hate the term “middle age?” So does Kristin van Ogtrop, the former longtime editor-in-chief of Real Simple. In this excerpt from her new book, she muses about the many midlife indignities women face—and how to survive them.
When we go to bed at night and want to keep our dog Jill in the kitchen, we have to block the doorway with a chair. If we don't, Jill wanders the house at all hours, sleeping wherever her determined little heart desires, flattening cushions and depositing stiff black fur on the upholstery and occasionally even relieving herself on the sisal, impossible-to-clean, might-as-well-throw-it-out-now dining-room rug. Our Jill is an angel and a devil and simultaneously the best and worst dog we have ever had.
But Jill's story is one for another time. Because we're here to talk about my toenail. The other morning I was moving the dog-blocking chair from the kitchen doorway back to its rightful place in the living room when I lost my balance and knocked the big toe of my left foot against the heel of my right. Naturally, my toenail broke in half.
This is how bad the situation has become. There are parts of my body that seem sapped of all strength, beginning with my toenails. It's not like I hit my toenail very hard—I just tapped it against a flesh-covered part of my own body. Friendly fire, as it were. And I don't believe my big toenail would have broken twenty years ago. But over time, certain things lose their zest for life. In the inventory of body parts, the left big toenail is fairly insignificant. And, unlike my heart or brain, it can be fixed in my own home after a quick visit to the kitchen computer. My sons make fun of me because my answer to most questions is "Just Google it," but I ask you: Where else but Google can I learn at 6:45 on a Sunday morning that I can DIY a toenail repair with a tea bag and some Gorilla Glue?
As I said, though, the toenail is a small concern. Compared to, say, my ABDOMEN, which—as discussed in chapter 1—is a region of my body prone to betrayal. Like many high-school students across America, I was once forced to read "The Second Coming," by William Butler Yeats, and I had no idea what it meant, nor did I care. I read it now—Things fall apart; the center cannot hold—and two concerns spring to mind: (1) U.S. politics, and (2) my ABDOMEN.
Are you ever foul-tempered for reasons you can't fathom? Sometimes I find myself at nine thirty on an otherwise normal morning feeling very cross, and I go through a little checklist in my head, searching for the cause.
- Sleepless night? No
- Mad at husband? No
- Worried about kids? No
- Problem at work? No
- Thinking about politics? No
And then, after rooting around in the dark chambers of my brain, I hit on it: it's my ABDOMEN.
I don't write ABDOMEN in capital letters as a literary device or a sign of emphasis or because I'm shouting. ABDOMEN is in capital letters because that is how important my ABDOMEN is to my well-being. Some women talk about bad hair days. Bad hair days aren't really a problem for me, because I hate my hair every day. I've given up on hair. It is beyond my power to make it thicker, longer, stronger, better.
My ABDOMEN, however, I can control, even as it controls me. This is not a situation I have to take lying down. Although lying down—that is, lying down without also doing a plank or fifty sit-ups—is part of the problem. I've seen pictures of Courteney Cox and Demi Moore in their bikinis. I've seen women who aren't famous, just women my age whom I know, in bikinis on Instagram and IRL, as the kids say, who have flat stomachs because they work at it. Both of my sisters have flat stomachs, which just feels unfair. Particularly because once upon a time, I had a flat stomach too. This is within my power! But there's wine and TV and rhubarb pie and Jill, who loves to plant herself next to me, press her body against mine, and silently will me to sit on the floor and scratch her ears when instead I could be strengthening my core. These things all get in the way of me taking control of the ABDOMEN.
I used to work with a woman who had no children and who was thin and fit except for a little poofy stomach. She might recognize herself when she reads this and feel hurt when I admit that looking at her poofy stomach gave me a little thrill of schadenfreude. She was my age, and her stomach suggested that maybe midsection expansion was inevitable and (sadly) one thing I couldn't blame on the kids.
I used to work with another woman who was very skinny, super-chic, bawdy, and hilarious. She is the person who taught me what FUPA means (fat upper-pussy area, in case you didn't know either). This woman and I worked together for literally decades but FUPA is the detail that lingers. I remember her fondly in part because, as skinny as she was, FUPA was apparently a matter of concern for her too.
I pass women of all shapes and sizes on the street, women who have poofy stomachs or FUPA or big round bellies like Major League Baseball umpires. I wonder whether their midsections bother them as much as mine does me. Is Sophia Loren bothered by her stomach? Maybe if I move to Italy and wear plunging wrap dresses and take my meals outdoors in an olive grove, I will be at peace with my ABDOMEN. Until I can move to Italy, though, I fear my foul mood will continue.
My ABDOMEN isn't the only thing that cannot hold. There's the body, and then there's the world it inhabits. Here are a few things that have recently fallen apart in my life: the car, the bathroom pipes, the circulator that supplies heat to the kitchen, and my son Axel's cello. This list in and of itself is not particularly impressive. But when you add the body falling apart, you reach a tipping point that makes life—which I am meant to value more every day, I know!—feel, well, like too much to bear. In the space of the past two weeks, I also found out that I have a little spot of basal cell skin cancer on my forehead and, per my dentist, need crowns on two teeth, the two with fractures so pronounced that even I can see them when Dr. Crowe shoves that little round mirror into my mouth. Be- neath the fractured teeth, you never really know what's going on. Although I have a suspicion: If history is any guide, it's a quiet, dangerous, bacterial rumble, like the beginnings of a volcanic eruption, except instead of lava, what eventually flies out is hundred-dollar bills. Because the second Dr. Crowe seals everything with crowns, I'm going to need a root canal. Eight dental visits and five thousand dollars later, I will be as good as new. You know how some streets of Greenwich Village were once cow paths? Well, I'm making my mark on my adopted city by wearing a path from the dentist on West Fifty-Ninth Street to the endodontist on West Forty-Fourth. I'm pretty sure that, by the time all my teeth are crowned or I'm dead, whichever comes first, the city's department of transportation will have paved a new road in my honor.
Everywhere I go these days, someone is scolding me about deferred maintenance. There's the dentist, of course. The plumber scolds me for not keeping the water in the bathroom faucet running when the day- time temperature dips below eighteen degrees—don't I remember the last time the pipes froze? And Jeff the mechanic scolds me each time I see him. Whenever our car goes into the shop, which has got to be more frequently than the national average, my husband and I have a polite little argument about who has to pick it up once it's fixed. It's always at the end of a workday and picking up the car means fifteen minutes of listen- ing to Jeff express his disappointment in you before you are allowed to pay the bill and leave. When it comes to cars, my husband and I employ the same approach we use on pets, good babysitters, and close friends: hold on to them for as long as possible while undoubtedly ignoring them more than we should. We don't wash our cars often enough, and at any given time you will find the cupholders filled with empty coffee mugs, broken reading glasses, or, this week, crushed tortilla chips, courtesy of our son Owen, who seems to eat all of his meals on I-95. The car that most recently needed repairing was a fifteen-year-old SUV that had been as loud as a Jet Ski for the past few years, which didn't seem to concern anyone except passengers who got in it for the first time and wondered why they couldn't hold a conversation in a normal tone. But now the car had developed a new sound, a mysterious high wheeze that you could hear even over the noise of the Jet Ski.
The wheeze wasn't even the half of it. As often happens with us and cars, what we thought was the problem was a red herring, meant to distract us from the real problem, which was much worse and much, much more expensive to fix.
Last night it was my turn to pick up the car and therefore get the scolding from Jeff. This time was particularly bad. His eyes full of exasperation, Jeff stood behind the counter and waved a two-inch-square clear plastic sticker that he apparently had affixed to a corner of the windshield and that neither my husband nor I had paid any attention to. "I put it there so you'd know you need an oil change at ninety thousand!" he said. "You're at ninety-six!"
I looked down at the counter, contrite, waiting for the storm to pass.
"So I guess you forgot to check?" he asked. "Yes," I replied.
Jeff is exactly my age and he seems like a sensible guy. He doesn't appear too overwhelmed to perform the maintenance that middle age seems to require, al- though I've never asked him if he's had his cholesterol checked. He once told me about a product called a battery tender that you plug into an outlet in your garage and attach to a car you aren't going to be driving for a while in order to prevent the battery from dying. It costs a hundred dollars and I'm hoping someone will invent the human equivalent for me.
For the record, my husband and I are also sensible people adhering to the golden mean as best we can. We vote and pay our mortgage on time and have produced three boys who never ingested anything poi- sonous as toddlers or spent the night in jail as adults. True, there have been trips to the emergency room, totaled cars, and written contracts involving marijuana use, but we're not going to get into that now. The world is full of ding-a-lings and I like to think we're not part of that crowd.
But maintenance has never been as important as read- ing the newspaper, scrolling through message boards devoted to college basketball, or hunting down the recipe for the cake I once had at a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, the best cake I've ever eaten in my life. As we trundle through middle age, most of us can handle the diminishment of vitality and the fuzziness of memory and the fact that we've lost so much collagen that the wrinkles from the pillow stay imprinted on our faces for far too long after we've gotten out of bed. It's the amount of time we need to spend on maintenance that is the most irritating. How do people over sixty-five have time for anything but doctor's visits?
Which brings me back to my teeth. In addition to the fractures, I have a persistent pain above one of my top molars. Have I called Dr. Crowe or scheduled an appointment with the endodontist? Of course not. I'm not ready to trigger that particular time-consuming chain reaction. Because the last time my mouth felt like this, it led to a root canal on a rainy Saturday when I was supposed to be getting ready to host a dinner party. Once he had finished, the excellent and quite thorough endodontist announced that he had done an "A minus or B plus" job and he wasn't satisfied with that. Two or three or maybe twelve appointments later, he was satisfied and I felt like I had lost a year of my life. Not to mention enough money for a trip to Aruba.
Advil—that is to say, denial—is just so much faster.
To borrow the wisdom of T. S. Eliot, the secret is to care and not to care, while not scaring the younger people around you. Six years ago, in a moment of startling conscientiousness, I got a colonoscopy exactly when I was supposed to, at age fifty. "The colonoscopy isn't bad—it's the prep!" If I had a dollar for every time a friend said that to me, I could pay for twenty root canals. I so dreaded the Prep that when I finally had to drink that awful stuff—and manage the consequences—it didn't actually seem so bad. The procedure itself wasn't terrible either. And because I had it done in Greenwich, Connecticut, where my dirty Jet Ski car sat in the parking lot cheek by jowl with Mercedes and Jaguars and other cars whose cupholders were not filled with tortilla chips, my gentle post-colonoscopy care included two perfectly toasted pieces of thick raisin bread, slathered with butter. Then my husband threw me in the Jet Ski and drove me home and that was that.
What no one warned me about, however, was that it would take a while for . . . things . . . to go back to normal. The day after my colonoscopy, it was my turn for monthly lunch duty at Axel's elementary school. Lunch duty, for a parent, means sticking on a name tag and patrolling the long, crowded tables, helping kids open their milk cartons, course-correcting those who can't keep their hands to themselves, and resisting the urge to rescue what seems like hundreds of unopened bags of baby carrots from the trash. I always loved lunch duty, because seeing what was inside kids' lunch boxes was like taking a field trip into the kitchens and value systems of half my town. If you know the children's book Bread and Jam for Frances, one of my all-time favorites, you will understand what I mean: There are lunch boxes with grape jelly on squishy white bread and lunch boxes with four-course meals. As with countless situations involving total strangers or families you know nothing about, it is impossible not to judge.
The other thing I loved about lunch duty was that I sometimes got to see my favorite teacher, Mrs. Rossi, née Goldsack, the best best best thing that happened to Axel between the ages of five and ten. Maybe the best thing that happened to our entire family. She was Axel's teacher for two years in a row, first and second grades. She is enthusiastic and kind, and she appreciates boys, which—as any boy mom will tell you—not all teachers do. It doesn't hurt that she looks like Katy Perry, with perfect makeup, a gleaming smile, and long hair that always smells nice. While she was still Ms. Goldsack, her second-grade class threw a surprise bridal shower for her at our house, which involved lots of top-secret planning with her fiancé, Steve, and a sweet video tribute that I bribed a guy at my office to edit. We all adored her, although Axel's adoration verged on the romantic. Before second grade ended, my son handed her a note expressing his fervent hope that Steve would treat her well because that was what she deserved. I never would have believed it if she hadn't texted me a picture of the note. And several months later, on the day Ms. Goldsack was to become Mrs. Rossi, Axel appeared at breakfast and said to me, with a heavy sigh and defeat in his voice, "Well, she's getting married today."
I hadn't seen Mrs. Rossi in a while, and at lunch duty on the day after my colonoscopy, I was listening to her tell me how she had celebrated her recent birth- day when suddenly I felt like I had been stabbed in the stomach.
"I can't believe I'm twenty-nine," she was saying. "It feels so old."
"Mmmm-hmmm," I said, pinching my side and bending over just slightly, hoping she wouldn't notice.
"I'm almost thirty!"
The pain got sharper; I pinched harder.
"And so many of my friends are getting pregnant!"
I nodded, bending over a bit more. "It's a very exciting time of your life," I said through clenched teeth. Until that point, I hadn't given much thought to what the previous day's procedure actually involved. Now I imagined my colon, hidden and slippery and as long as a python, filled with angry little pockets of air that were fighting each other to get out.
"I know," she said with a smile. "I just hope . . . um, are you okay?"
By this point I was hinged ninety degrees at the waist and looking at her shoes. "I'm fine," I croaked. "I had a colonoscopy yesterday."
She gave me a confused look.
"I think it might just take a couple of days to recover," I said. Under no circumstances would I utter the word gas in the elementary-school lunchroom. My friend Beth says one of the worst things about getting older is "the surprise fart." The python in my body was planning something much worse.
Mrs. Rossi regarded me sympathetically, the way you would an elderly dog whose back legs no longer work and so its owner has MacGyvered a wheelie device to its hindquarters so it can pretend to walk with dignity down the street. You root for the creature while feel- ing pity that it has to be seen like that in public. She nodded as if she understood—even though she was only twenty-nine, even though she probably wouldn't have to think about colonoscopies for decades—which was what made her such an excellent teacher, not to mention the woman Axel wanted to marry. "Maybe you should go home," she said.
"Yes," I replied.
Despite appearances, both literal and figurative, I would not want to be twenty-nine again. There is so much uncertainty in that time of life, so much self- doubt, so many hours spent wondering where your life is going and whether you are proceeding at the right speed as friends whoosh by you in the passing lane. And there is so much you don't know. Some of what you learn between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty-six is wonderful and some of it makes the world feel scrambled and cruel. But knowledge, as they say, is power. Even if there are days you'd like to give that power back.
There is one thing I envy about my twenty-nine- year-old self, however: the bedtime routine. I think wistfully of when, at the end of the day, I could just wash my face, brush my teeth, and collapse into bed. Now shutting down operations for the night is a com- plicated endeavor, what with the lotions and creams and ointments and pills and the glass of water next to the bottle of thyroid medication on the bedside table and finding just the right pillow for the stiff neck, not to mention the time devoted to examining my gums, which, after a lifetime of too-vigorous brushing, may have receded so much that Dr. Crowe is going to have to repair them with little pieces of cadaver, which is what happened to my father and my friend Kim. I'm sure it is a brilliant solution, but that really feels like you've crossed a line, when you've got part of another person's dead body in your mouth.
And where is my top lip going? It's a mystery. I worry that in fifteen years it will disappear altogether, having slowly eroded from overuse, like Machu Picchu.
Come to think of it, the whole mouth area becomes something of a sad World Heritage Site once you reach your fifties. In addition to the disappearing top lip, there are the little vertical lines that ring your mouth like barbed wire, even if you apply Blistex religiously and have never smoked a day in your life.
And then there are the elevens.
Last February my family hosted a potluck dinner for all the people on our block. It was a fun party; our neighbors are reasonable, warm people with interest- ing jobs and children who make eye contact, and some of them are excellent cooks. One family even brought cookies decorated with house numbers on them— a pink-frosted, heart-shaped treat for each household. These cookie decorators were the newest people on the block, and while some might regard the gesture as show-offy or desperate, I found it overachieving in all the best ways. They (overachievers!) also made a coconut cake from an Ina Garten recipe that was the second- most delicious cake I've had in all my life, after the one from Birmingham, which I still haven't reproduced.
Anyway I was rushing around, doing hostess stuff, hurrying back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room with platters of The Silver Palate's Chicken Marbella (remember that? It's as good today as it was thirty years ago) and gravy boats of sauce and trivets for hot casserole dishes when my neighbor Elasah gently grasped my arm, looked at me with concern, and said, "Is everything all right?"
"Is there anything I can do?" she asked. And then I understood. It's my face—specifically, my permafrown. Something happened between my thirties and forties: I developed an eleven, or two parallel lines above the bridge of my nose (not to be confused with elevenses, which is the second breakfast people in the UK eat and just further proof that we should all be living in Buckingham Palace). When you have an eleven, your resting face is a frown, and you look angry or confused or in need of help from your neighbor even if the potluck is going well and you feel just fine. Everyone in my family has an eleven. You should see my father; he's now eighty-one and when he's not smiling, he looks like he wants to run you over with his car.
So, to review: receding gums, disappearing upper lip, smoker's lines, the eleven. Years of editing women's magazines have provided me with countless ways to combat these problems. Some are cheap and ineffective (sleep with a silk pillowcase!), others expensive and effective ( Juvéderm!), still others super-weird (snail slime! urine therapy! sheep placenta!). And that's just for the territory above the neck.
Which brings me back to the ABDOMEN, where there is breaking news. Remember my two sisters with their flat stomachs? Claire, who is fifty-one, lives on a little farm that requires her to do a lot of core- strengthening manual labor, and Valerie, fifty-three, is just lucky that way. Or she was. The other afternoon Valerie and I were talking on the phone about week- end plans and birthdays and homesick college students when suddenly she said, "I need to start working out more because I can't get rid of this stomach." Her voice rose as she continued. "It's driving me crazy. Is it just middle age?"
"I did paleo for two weeks and I lost a pound and a half but the stomach is still there." Now she was practically shouting.
"Welcome to my—"
"Is this just my body now? Is this just it, like, for- ever? What am I supposed to do," she yelled, "just live with it?"
I smiled in sympathy because I love my sister and because I was grateful that she wouldn't hear the schadenfreude in my voice. "Yes," I replied.
Excerpted from Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.