This year, they built a brand new aquatic centre a block from my house. It's stunning, so modern and asymmetrical, and when I looked in the windows, it looked really cool. I pictured myself jumping in the pool and bobbing around. Maybe I'd get a floaty board and do some kicks; perhaps I'd tread water in the deep end and then dive down to touch the bottom. I've never been much of a real swimmer. I did take lessons at the Y as a kid, but I didn't like the water very much, so sometimes, after Dad dropped me off, I'd skip my class, opting instead to hang out in the lobby. Then I'd wet my hair in a sink just before Dad came back to pick me up again. Over the years, I eventually learned to swim so-so. I knew I'd never be a lifeguard, but I could tread water fine, and I liked being in hotel pools or the ocean on vacation.
I'd been meaning to check out the new pool for some time, so last week, during a pretty slow work day, I checked the schedule that I'd picked up one day and discovered that I was in time for the adult lane swim. Lane swim, I thought, was a far cry from floaty boards and playing in the deep end, but I nonetheless grabbed my suit and towel and rode my bike up the street to Regent Park Aquatic Centre.
I changed into my suit, took the requisite 'warm shower with soap' and then walked onto the pool deck, where I had three choices of lane speed: slow, medium and fast. The slow lane had lots of older ladies in it, some chatting with each other, and some bobbing up and down or doing the doggie paddle. Was this one for me, I thought? The fast lane had some thin men of all ages and some young, athletic looking girls with soccer shoulders. Everyone in this lane looked like serious swimmers because they had goggles on. Some even had rubber caps. And yes, they were swimming pretty fast. I decided the medium lane was probably right for me. There were six or eight other swimmers doing various crawls and strokes. Some had goggles or caps; others none. So I jumped in and took my place in the swim progression, moving counterclockwise up one side of the lane, and down the other; simple swimming for exercise, like real adults do.
Thanks to my early aversion to swimming lessons, I can't actually do a consistent front crawl and breathe to my side for more than ten seconds at a time. I was running out of breath pretty easily too, between the cardio involved and working muscles I hadn't in a few decades. All in all though, I was keeping up just fine in the medium lane. The water felt good to me, and so did the mini sense of accomplishment I was experiencing, real lane swimming for the first time in my life.
When I got home, I googled 'best swim goggles', (Speedo Vanquishers, apparently), changed my clothes, and headed downtown to buy them and a big healthy adult salad. What began as a day hoping I'd have some time to frolic in a pool had turned into a very adult morning and afternoon of looking after myself and being good to my body.
In the last six weekdays, I have been to the pool on five of them. I'm trying to form a habit of swimming, of being good to myself, and of trying to get better at something I used to fear. It feels like growing up.
I have nine grey chest hairs now. I noticed them this morning in the mirror. They surprised me because I’d forgotten they were coming eventually. It was only last year – the year that I turned 40 – that I even started to notice grey hairs coming in on my head. “Oh I love grey hair,” I used to tell people. “Salt and pepper is so handsome. Bring it on.” Grey on my head sounds dashing. Grey on my chest sounds old.
I went to my doctor recently to have a physical done. Both of my parents have had high cholesterol in the past, and Dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes about six years ago, so I thought it was time to have these looked at. While I sat there, I tried to remember all of the concerns that I had for my doctor. “My shoulder’s been tense lately. I’m losing my hair. What do those numbers tell you about my blood pressure?” – and decided to let others go unmentioned. I’ve accepted the fact that my left elbow will hurt forever, after I fell on it last summer. I’ve accepted the fact that my knees ache when I try to run now. These are just small things that I’ve been moving over to the ‘unavoidable’ column. What will follow?
He handed me a requisition form for my blood tests and wrote me a prescription for Propecia – the pill that makes your hair grow back, but robs you of some of your sex drive. Seems like so many problems can be solved now, but that there’s a price to pay in doing so.
I went to the dentist last week too, to get her to look at one of my back molars. It hurts lately, and I feared it would be another root canal, having had one two years ago. She x-rayed the area in question and told me there was nothing she could see that was causing it.
“It’s probably because of your gums,” she told me. “As you get older, they recede and the roots beneath them become exposed, and that can be painful." I left, happy not to have had my tooth drilled, but feeling a bit defeated because of the slippery slope toward the future that my tooth roots are on.
This feels like it's happening fast – my sensitive teeth and aching knees, my balding pate, my neck that seizes up when I turn my head to the right, my tingling face due to a pinched nerve, my slowly deteriorating eyesight and my slowing metabolism. For years I told myself that I was good with getting older – that I looked forward to calmer, wiser times. The reality is something quite different though. Getting older feels more like "closer to the end", than it does "better and more like myself". When I see my face changing with age, I wonder, have I really done what I wanted to by now? Am I where I wanted to be? Have I really done the very best I could with life so far?
I was waiting to get on the streetcar yesterday. When it finally pulled up, the small group of people I was with had to wait for a few moments to get on because a small, thin, older man, likely in his 80s, was slowly taking the steps down, one by one. He apologized to all of us, speaking from the bottom step.
“Sorry, everyone,” he said. "It's terrible getting old." He then moved ahead through the people and walked directly up to me. He touched my arm, looked at me with his blue eyes and told me, “Don’t get old.”
Today is my father-in-law's birthday. His name is Antonio but I call him Boss when I see him. I took this picture in 2009 when Luis and I went to the island of Terceira in the Azores, where their family is from, and where his parents return every summer. Luis's Dad sat outside that day, inserting small metal grommets one by one into this huge piece of orange canvas, which would eventually become the back wall and overhang of the terrace beside their house. It took him almost two hours. He's a study in patience and moves at his own pace. I love and admire that about him. Happy birthday, Boss.
Tina's my girl – the girl who cuts my hair for two years now. I don’t actually call her my girl to her face. We’re not that close. But if we were, I would. I’d step into the barber shop where she works and probably say something like, “Hey Babe,” before giving her a big hug so I could smell her Elizabeth Arden Red Door up close. “Hi Cutie,” she’d say, eyes smiling. “Take your jacket off and sit down and I’ll be right with you.” I kind of feel that’s how it would go down, if Tina and I were closer, that is.
Instead, when I enter the shop, I just say "Hi".
"Have a seat," she'll say, indicating her chair.
Tina’s just a few years older than me, probably in her mid to late forties, and she’s good looking. She’s tall and has long blonde hair that looks pretty soft, considering she probably dyes it. She usually wears a black top of some kind, and tight, sparkly pants. She also wears tall, black, heeled leather boots which, depending on the season, sometimes have tassels on them.
Tina’s haircutting station is covered in memorabilia from Coronation Street, that British soap opera that makes me feel sad. I've always found the lighting they use on the show to be cold. On Tina's counter are pictures of her and her family touring the set of Coronation Street, a mug with the name of the show and a small tin British telephone booth. Knowing I’ll never be able to connect with her about that show, I’ve tried to steer her toward a conversation about Downton Abbey. Now that’s a foundation upon which we could really form a solid barber-client friendship.
“Have you seen Downton Abbey yet,” I’ve asked, “because you’re absolutely going to love it.”
“No,” she’s said. “I have the DVDs, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
There. Conversation over. No “Did you see the documentary the other evening on Highclere Castle?” or “Wasn’t Shirley Maclaine great as Cora’s mother this season?” Instead we’ll stick to small, common talk – if I like the weather; what I did for the holidays; if I’ve been to the new Japanese restaurant up the street.
Tina insists on asking me every time if I’d like my eyebrows trimmed. I always politely decline. ("Why, do my eyebrows need trimming?") She also sometimes takes her electric clipper and buzzes some hair off my ear lobes. I’m pretty sure I’m too young to start shaving my ears. I don’t tell her this; instead I just cringe and hope those hairs don’t start to grow back thicker than they were, like my mother said happens to hair you shave off your body.
When Tina’s done cutting my hair, she holds up the mirror behind me so I can inspect the hairline she’s given me at the place where my head meets my neck.
“Oh. That's great,” I tell her. Tina doesn't know, but I'm lying. In fact, I've stopped thinking of her and my nape altogether because all I can see is the bald spot forming on my pate. The crown of my head is like a young niece or nephew that I only see once or twice every few months. It changes significantly between sightings. It’s my age quite literally creeping up at me from behind, silent and slow and not something I wish to face.
Now at 40, my slowly balding head is in the same category as my cheeks – once thin, blushed and pert. I now keep a week’s growth on my beard at all times, because when I shave my face clean, I notice how my jawline is widening, just like Carrie Fisher’s did as she got older. My white skin makes the area look even bigger than it is. A beard, I tell myself, blurs the edge of my face. It hides my true age for just a little longer. Princess Lea I am not.
Tina removes the black cloak and I stand up for one of the few moments of the afternoon when we’re standing eye to eye. Her blonde hair no longer looks as soft as when I walked in. Her crows’ feet are more visible now too, caked in foundation, and I don’t smell any Elizabeth Arden Red Door at all.
“Turn around for a sec and I’ll brush you off,” she says.
While Tina’s behind me, brushing my own hair off my ears and the back of my neck, I look at my reflection in her mirror, rising from her collection of Coronation Street memorabilia. And I can’t wait to leave.
40 used to seem old to me. It looked old to me. My own parents had me when they were 41 and 40. I came along in 1972 to a family of five, already established as a couple and three girls approaching teenhood. I didn’t know Mom and Dad were older than other parents until I started going to school and seeing what most kids’ parents looked like. The moms that came to pick up their kids at Brick Street Public School were often blonde. They had bobbed hair that moved when they did. They wore denim, one-piece jumpsuits with cream coloured turtlenecks and big fat shoes that were ready to run when they needed them to. They had names like Linda and Brenda.
My own mother’s hair didn’t move so much. It was permed to be curly and it was grey. Mom worked at Price Waterhouse as a secretary so she wore skirts with matching jackets, and shoes with thin heels that weren’t conducive to running. Her name is Elaine.
Other dads were different too. They were often tan. They wore t-shirts and Adidas jackets with stripes on the sleeves. Some wore gold chains or big rings. They moved fast and spoke in loud voices. Some had beards. My own Dad, Jim, was gentle. He spoke mildly and slowly. He didn’t like jeans so much, opting instead for grey or khaki slacks with a shirt that would button up the front. Dad was approaching 50 when most of my friends’ fathers were likely coming up to their mid-thirties.
I couldn’t believe it when Gina Nagy – the five-foot tall eight-year-old – told me in Grade 3 that her parents slept naked in their bed. They sounded like wild people to me. I’d picture their bedroom messy, with dirty crumpled white sheets on the bed and ashtrays on the side tables. I met them once. They drove a big blue Lincoln. They were tall and spoke with accents. I knew they slept naked. I hated that I knew that.
And Michael Brock's mother was the local Beaver leader. We called her Akela, but her name was Diane. She wore track suits and was always out running in the neighbourhood. She was "active". At Michael's birthday parties, Akela would play a game with us called Poor Pussy. She’d sit on the floor in the middle of the room and one by one, each kid there would have to go sit with her and stare into her eyes without turning away or laughing, this while she stroked your face and repeated the words "poooooor pussy" over and over again. It was humiliating, but at least she baked money into the cake.
My own parents didn’t play games on the floor with us. We played cards at the table sometimes – crazy eights maybe, or cribbage. They slept in pajamas like my sisters and I did and on Sundays we went to church before coming home to eat molasses poured on crusty bread from the Italian bakery downtown. They taught my sisters and me to be polite and to speak to strangers with kindness. They loved me and they told me so every day.
I am finally older now than my mother was when she gave birth to me and almost as old as my father was, and my 40 feels different than I perceived theirs to be. I never pictured that I’d live in Toronto. I never thought that I wouldn't own a car by now, or that I wouldn't be a dad. I didn't know that I wouldn't have traveled as much by now as I would have wanted, or that I'd have stopped drinking coffee because of the effect that caffeine has on my nervous system. With a slowly balding pate, a greying beard and one root canal behind me, this is what my 40 looks like, what it feels like; a conspiracy led by my body and denied by my heart.
Bonnie Franklin died yesterday. She was the mom, Ann Romano, on One Day at a Time. It was a show I never loved, but watched a bit as a kid. I thought Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) was really pretty and I had a crush on Julie (Mackenzie Phillips). In recent years, after hearing of Mackenzie's problems with drugs and her fucked up family, I've discovered I still have a soft spot for her.
The colour on the show was terrible - all camel-y and tans and some light golds. I never loved shows with palettes like that. M*A*S*H* was another one. All that army green and desert-y brown. Blech. So depressing. And Schneider's denim vest and white t-shirt - something I could probably find hot now on the right guy - seemed dirty to me. Not sexy dirty, which hadn't occurred to me yet in the late 70s; just dirty dirty. I will admit that Glenn Scarpelli did improve the viewing for me. I thought he was nice to look at and I liked his scratchy boy-man voice. I don't want to know what he looks like now, but I'll probably Google him anyway.
But anyway, when I heard that Bonnie Franklin died yesterday, I felt sad. For her a bit, yes, but really, more for me. It's people like Bonnie Franklin that played roles in my childhood, no matter how small. Isabel Sanford. Sherman Hemsley. Beth Howland. Linda Lavin. My beloved Celia Weston. I am hating getting older, so as the components of my childhood disappear from the world, I notice. And I hate it.
I won't admittedly miss Bonnie Franklin, but I'm sorry to experience the disruption that her leaving has caused.