Archive | Aging Ungracefully

Why Older People Are Happier

Over on Slate last week, Libby Copeland had an interesting article about aging and happiness. In it, she summarized a growing body of research showing that subjective well-being improves considerably after middle-age.

This result is sometimes referred to as the U-Bend, to connote the higher levels of happiness in early and late adulthood, with a dip during middle-age.  While the age at which this happiness boost kicks in varies across countries (as early as 35 in Switzerland (Damn them!) and as late as 62 in the Ukraine), the result has held up astonishingly well both within the United States and cross-nationally, occurring on average around the age of 46.

There are a variety of hypotheses floating around out there to explain this persistent age/happiness finding. But most theories seem to come down less on the side of circumstance (e.g. retirement/empty nest/etc.) and more on the side of a change in mind-set which kicks in once we get beyond middle age.

As Copeland summarizes it: “As we age, it appears, we aspire to moderation rather than thrills, we notice the silver lining, we temper our highs and lows, and we seek fulfillment in the moment. With age comes pragmatism—instead of remaking the world, we remake our impressions of it.”

Which makes a lot of sense to me. When you’re young, as Copeland narrates, you shoot for the moon. You experiment a lot and you make a lot of mistakes. After all, you’ve got all the time in the world to figure it out.

But as you age, your time horizons shorten and you prioritize the things you’ve learned that you like. What kind of friends you want to have around you. What career makes sense for you. What you want to do for a hobby.

Which doesn’t mean that this adjustment is painless. To the extent that this happiness boost hinges on lowering one’s aspirations, for example – that’s a lot easier said than done. Indeed, I’d venture to say that “acceptance” is one of the hardest things to come to terms with as a grown-up (which may account for that big happiness dip during mid-life.)

But once you figure out a way to do that – to realize that you probably aren’t going to be the next Beethoven (itself a source of anxiety) – a certain relief sets in as you stop searching and just live.

I’m not there yet. But I do look forward to it. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Image: Old Couple by kayugee via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

 

Aging: The Power Of Giving Back

When I was younger, I didn’t think all that much about “giving back” to my community. The professions I chose – academia, policy, journalism – I selected because they tickled my fancy. They were fun, exciting, challenging.

And if – in the course of pursuing them, I happened to make a difference in someone else’s life – so much the better. But that wasn’t my primary goal in life. It was all about me.

As I delve ever more deeply into middle age, however, I find that I derive the most meaning when I’m helping other people. Perhaps this is unusual. We are, after all, purportedly living in an age of narcissism.

But I don’t think I’m all that unique. Indeed, I think that one of the great unheralded truths of middle age is that all the clichés turn out to be true. Among them:  the power of giving back.

Which is perhaps why I am so taken with Colleen Wainwright – aka Communicatrix’s – 50th birthday party celebration. Colleen has decided that as she hits this landmark birthday, she really doesn’t need any more “stuff.” She already has plenty of toasters.

Rather, what would really make her happy is if she could raise money for a non-profit in her home town that’s in need of some help. The non-profit is called WriteGirl. It’s a Los Angeles-based organization which partners teen-aged girls with women writers for creative writing workshops and one-on-one mentoring.

Colleen’s been involved with Write Girl for several years now. As she explains in this blog post about that experience:

I have cried at every WriteGirl workshop I’ve been to. I’ve also rarely laughed so joyously as I have there, nor felt more hope for humanity. These are amazing girls, all of them. They vary in their levels of introversion and extroversion, boldness and shyness, just like the rest of us, but each of them has been 100% present and committed at every workshop I’ve been to…They engage, they ask questions, they play, and they write. Oh, boy do they write, and how.

So in honor of her 50th birthday – which is exactly 50 days from today – Colleen has set herself the challenge of raising $50,000 to support Write Girl. As she notes, mastering the ability to write opens doors, builds self-confidence and self-esteem, and increases a girl’s chances of earning a living for herself and changing the world for present and future generations.

Pretty simple, huh?

So please. Pop by and pay a visit and see for yourself what this whole thing is about. See if you aren’t inspired to give something – even something small – to support this fabulous cause.

Bonus? There are lots of cool give-away prizes.

Double Bonus? If Colleen hits her goal by her birthday, she will shave off all of her hair.

(Wow. If it were *my* birthday, I might need to buy a wig.)

And thanks.

 

Image: Day 167 – Head by TiggerT via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

 

Do We Ever Really Leave High School?

Most grown ups harbor an inner teenager still struggling to make it in high school. Deep down – even as adults – we’re all a bit insecure, a bit awkward, and a bit worried about where, exactly, life will take us.

Among other things, it’s this inner-high-school universal which helps to explain the popularity of the hit television show Glee!.

It also explains my attitude towards taking the UK citizenship last week.

Let me preface this by saying that I am, by nature, one of those people who has recurrent dreams about test anxiety. I frequently dream that I’m back in high school – invariably in a Math class. I learn that there’s a test that very day, but I freak out because I haven’t been attending the class regularly or doing the homework.

The odd thing about this dream is that I’ve never been unprepared for a test in my life. But the anxiety is there, lurking just below the surface, just as it surely was in high school.

And so I studied my ass off for this thing. I read the five required chapters from the Life In The UK Handbook religiously. By the end of the first week, I could break down the British population by region, religion, ethnicity. The age at which can obtain a driver’s license for a medium-sized lorry (truck) vs. a large one? No problem. What makes the House of Commons different from the House of Lords? Easy peasy.

I went On line and took some 50 practice tests – none of which I came even close to failing – and then went back and re-read the fine print in the Life in the UK Handbook a few more times. Just, you know, for good measure.

Despite all of this preparation, when the test day rolled around, I was really anxious. I got to the test center early and waited for my husband (who, true to form, arrived on his bicycle with only a few minutes to spare and was still studying even as we registered with the immigration officials. Among other things, taking a test with your spouse also reinforces your central marital “ziplock” conflict.).

When we finally sat down to take the test, I breezed right through it. I was certain of 20 out of 24 of the questions, and took an educated guess on the other four. (You need to get 18 right to pass.) I completed the entire thing – including double and triple-checking my answers – in five minutes flat.

That’s right. Five minutes.

Needless to say, I passed. When I got the news from the immigration official, I was elated. Ridiculously, absurdly so. And *not*, I hasten to add, because I was that much closer to having permanent residency in the U.K.

Rather, my exuberance all stemmed from the challenge of having studied hard for a test and having aced it.

That said, because they don’t actually tell you how many – and which questions – you got wrong unless you fail, I couldn’t know for sure if I’d gotten 75% right or 100%. And damn it, I wanted to know!

So as soon as I got my result, I rushed back to my seat and poured over the Handbook to check all of my answers on the tricky questions. And every time I discovered that I’d answered one correctly, I pumped my fist in the air and let out a “Yesssssssssssssssssssss!”

My husband, who by now was in queue to get his own result, looked over at me at one point and asked, incredulously: “Is this how you were in high school?”

Sadly, yes. And I suspect that’s true for most of us. Whether it’s taking an important test or competing in a do-or-die football match or finally screwing up the courage to ask the girl you’ve had a crush on to Senior Prom, none of us ever fully escapes the clutches of high school.

Ever.

And thank goodness for that. What on earth would I blog about?

 

Image: img057 by Haonavy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Things To Do Before You Die

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Over on Middle-Age Cranky, Howard Baldwin has a great post entitled Oh, The Places You’ll Go. In it, he lists all the places he’s always wanted to visit but which for various reasons – political strife, travel restrictions, inertia – have remained “off limits.” And now, as he settles into middle age, he wonders if he’ll ever actually make it to any of them.

I loved this post because it reminds us that as we get older, we start to fashion our proverbial “bucket lists” –  a list of all the things we want to do before we  die. I’m not talking here about the small stuff – e.g. losing five pounds, finally visiting Great Aunt Sally on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’m talking about those bigger, more daunting challenges that we set for ourselves because they speak to some deep-seated desire or personal quest.

We all have those lists, whether formalized or not. One of my friends wants to run a marathon on all seven continents. (I think he’s up to four or five by now.) Another has sworn that she’ll open her own coffee import/export business.

These Wednesday posts are meant to serve as advice, but obviously, every person’s bucket list will be different. So the advice here is really to create your own list and then figure out how you can begin moving towards realizing some of your goals.

I’ll go first:

1. Read the bible. Yeah, I realize that this might sound kind of pedantic. But the fact is, while I’ve read assorted sections of the bible – and attended religious education classes for something like 12 years – I don’t really feel like I have a very good handle on the Good Book in its entirety. So I’d actually like to sit down and read it – start to finish – and see what I make of it. (And yes, I do know that I could just use David Plotz’ book as crib notes, but that feels like cheating.)

2. Perform In Community Theater. Coming from someone who has openly admitted her fondness for Show Tunes and her abiding love of Glee!, this particular goal shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise. But this is one of those elusive goals that keeps getting away from me. I took a drama class a few years back and one of my classmates now performs at various small venues around London. He’s kept his day job (as a banker) but he has clearly made drama a priority in his life. And every time he invites me to one of his performances, I feel simultaneously happy for him that he’s pursued this goal…and envious.

3. Take a safari. I’m not a big animal lover. But the idea of taking a Safari through Africa and seeing all those animals out in the wild has always captured my imagination. Who knows? Perhaps I’m just secretly hoping that a monkey will take a photograph of me.

4. Learn a new language. I love languages. I majored in Spanish and French in college. But I’d love to really challenge myself and learn a really difficult language, like Arabic or Chinese, as an adult. Or even Finnish. And then go spend a lot of time in a country that speaks that language. Oh to be 21 again.

5. Learn to Drive In the U.K. Enough said.

What’s crazy about this list is that – with the possible exception of the Safari – these are all eminently doable. And yet, I still haven’t managed to get any of them done. Which I suspect may be true for others as well.

So spill it. What’s on your bucket list? Tap Dancing? Machu Picchu? Cordon Bleu?

Do tell.

 

Image: 2011.01.01 Bible by Gerard’s World via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

What David Sedaris Teaches Us About Middle Age

My husband and I went to see David Sedaris on Friday night.

He was doing a reading of his work at Cadogan Hall here in London. (The last time we went to Cadogan Hall it was to see Garrison Keillor. I think you know you’re middle-aged when you start spending your weekends attending events headlining NPR personalities. Must add it to my list…)

If you aren’t familiar with Sedaris, have a listen to Santaland Diaries – a diary of his Christmas spent working as an elf at Macy’s – which catapulted him to overnight fame. When it was first broadcast, this essay generated more requests for tapes than any story in Morning Edition’s history except the death of veteran sports caster Red Barber.

If you are familiar with Sedaris, then you’ll know why we jumped at the chance to hear him perform live.

He didn’t disappoint.

He was funny, engaging, self-effacing and gracious.

He also told a bunch of off-color jokes. Apparently, during his recent book tour in the U.S., he started asking people who came up to have their books signed to tell him a joke. He has now collected some of the best ones he’s heard and uses them as part of his routine. He even asked our audience to tell him some raunchy gay jokes. (Sedaris is gay.) He feels like people are too abashed to tell him any.

Above all, however, it was really inspiring to watch someone who is clearly having so much fun in his chosen profession. At one point – while reading a new piece he’s written about why traveling to China has made him hate Chinese food – he actually cracked himself up and had to stop for a moment to regain his composure before carrying on with the reading. I loved that.

When author Frank McCourt died, I wrote a post about the joys of old age and how McCourt’s life is a great example of how it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Sedaris achieved literary success in his early 30’s, but somehow he’s never quite lost that air of the up-and-coming-guy who’s still shuffling around cleaning other people’s apartments and working as an elf over the Christmas holidays because he needs the extra money.

In short, he acts like someone who’s still waiting to catch his big break. And therein lies his genius and his charm. You get the sense that this is a guy who still doesn’t take anything for granted. Rather, he lives life by being a careful observer of it: by drawing out the humorous and the touching in the million little particles that make up every day, and by and finding never-ending ways to make himself laugh as he does so.

What a treat. We should all be so lucky.

David Sedaris by WBUR via Flickr from a Creative Commons license.

Celebrating A Milestone Birthday

A friend of mine turned 50 last weekend. And in honor of the occasion, his wife threw him a big shindig.

There were people there from all different phases of his life, a live band, a roast pork with all the fixins’, and a huge pile of red, white and blue bespoke designer cup cakes – (apparently a reference to the rock band The Who…who knew?) – that we all took home at the end of the evening .

It was the first “50th” I’ve been to, (although I’ve been to plenty of other milestone birthdays along the way.) And what struck me most about it was how well the festivities suited the birthday boy in question. It was held, for starters, in a rugby club. (This is a gent who likes his sports.) It was also quite casual. (I’d been planning to wear a black evening dress when the hostess confessed that she’d be wearing “a fancy top with jeans.” Thank goodness I asked. Major wardrobe U-turn.)

But what most struck me about the gathering was that the guest of honor sang…at his own party. Together with a few of our more musically-minded friends (plus his sisters on back up and a professional drummer from the band), the entourage belted out no less than four songs, including (it must be said) The Beatles’ They Say It’s Your Birthday.

Which was simply awesome.

Now I recognize that not everyone would want to sing at their own birthday party, much less be able to. But it was *exactly* what this guy wanted to do… and lo he did.

And that got me thinking about how the act of celebrating something like this differs so markedly across the human species.

Another friend of mine who’s also turning 50 this year told me that he planned to spend it in a hotel room with his wife, a bunch of alcohol and some dirty movies. Well, ok then.

And I’ll never forget the friend of mine who confessed that while she was deeply touched when her husband threw her a surprise birthday party many years ago, she found it incredibly stressful to have people assembled from all the different parts of her life all at once in the same room.

All of which is to say that how we choose to celebrate these milestones as we get older says an awful lot about who we are as people:  our tastes, our predilections, our natures.

So spill it. What’s the wildest/most memorable/most interesting birthday party/milestone celebration you’ve ever attended?

 

Image: 50 Years Of Light by Micah68 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Keep Your Brain Active As You Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I had a senior moment the other day. I was talking to my daughter about my elementary school, and I started listing my teachers one by one. But when I got to fifth grade, I drew a complete blank. I could envision the lady perfectly – plump, jolly, liked to wear purple – and even remembered that her name began with an “F.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name.

I can be forgiven this lapse, of course. It was, after all, 35 years ago (cough.) But it was another sign that as we age, our memories aren’t quite what they once were.

In that spirit, here are five tips for keeping your brain active as you age:

1. Work. Pay no attention to all those French people behind the curtain, striking their hearts out because Nicolas Sarkozy is about to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. New research reported in the New York Times last week shows that postponing retirement is actually better for your brain. Coining the phrase “mental retirement” to capture what happens when your brain is no longer getting regular exercise, the study shows that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive and memory tests than people who are still working.

2. Walk. But in case you’d still prefer to be living on the beach at 65 rather than toiling away in an office cubicle, be sure that you walk a lot in paradise. Another study out last week shows that walking at least six miles a week may be one thing people can do to keep their brains from shrinking and fight off dementia. Which is good news for me, even in my new-found hip, urban status as the owner of a collapsible bike. One thing that not owning a car really does is get you used to good, vigorous walks.

3. Be Social. Back when I wrote about five reasons to be optimistic about middle age, I referenced some new research showing that  – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. (See #1.) Turns out that one of the things that keeps the brain developing as we age is being social. In addition to getting out and meeting people, people who volunteer and help kids also seem to age better and help their brains.

4. Use the Internet. OK, this one is controversial, especially coming from someone who warned you not to get an e-reader lest it chip away at your capacity to engage in sustained, concentrated thought. But there are two sides to every story. And a lot of scientists – Harvard’s Steven Pinker, for one – think that far from damaging our brains as we age, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales. Colin Blakemore, a British neurobiologist concurs. As he notes – reacting to the prevailing “internet ruins our minds” thesis:  “At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus, the pocket calculator or the Sinclair Z80.” So by all means, grab that new Kindle, Grandma. And get a Twitter account while you’re at it..

5. Eat lots of fish. Many parents will be familiar with the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs) for brain development in utero and in young children. (Neurotic parenting confession #346b: Until my son – who was born allergic to just about everything – was two, we regularly spiked his rice milk with flax seed oil for precisely this reason.) But it turns out that these so-called “good fats” are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting cognitive decline during aging. Fish, for example, is a great source of EFAs. Flax-soaked salmon, anyone?

*****

On Monday, I was over on www.PoliticsDaily.com talking about reform of the British welfare system.

Image: thyme salmon with leek coulis by elana’s pantry via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Be Pessimistic About Middle Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last week, I gave you five reasons to be optimistic about middle age. In brief: you’ll live longer, your brain will keep developing, you’ll be happier, your divorce may not be all that bad, and you’ll make loads of new friends on the AARP Facebook page.

But in addition to being an optimist, I’m also a realist. As promised, then, here are five reasons to be pessimistic about middle age:

1. Social services can’t keep up with aging population. Yes, people are living longer. That’s the good news. But the general aging of the population will also place enormous burdens on social services, including health care delivery, informal care-giving and the pension system. So a lot will hinge on just how healthy this new crop of centenarians is. About 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition and 50 percent have at least two. In theory, the health care reform bill passed last year in America should help address some of these problems. But some experts warn that our public policies  – including health care reform – just aren’t up to the task of ensuring that our aging population gets the medical care it needs. In the worst case scenario – not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well – the old and the young will enter into a zero-sum conflict, fighting for scarce health care and economic resources.

2. Suicide rates are up among middle-aged Americans. Alongside all the research discussed last week showing that happiness peaks at 50, a curious and sobering counter-trend has also emerged:  For the second year in a row, middle-aged adults have registered the highest suicide rate in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A variety of hypotheses have been tossed out to explain this trend, including easier access to guns and prescription drugs as well as higher rates of depression among boomers. One sociologist at Berkeley speculates that it’s a combination of having grown up during an era of cultural turmoil (the 60’s), together with greater competition for resources (due to baby boom) as well as the stresses induced by an extended period of young adulthood. Whatever the cause, it’s certainly nothing to be cheery about.

3. Midlife Crises Cost More. I noted last week that with the advent of a happy middle age, there may be fewer midlife crises. But for those boomers out there still looking for Plan B, it’s gonna cost them. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, mid-life crises – whether it’s traveling the world, playing the stock market or starting one’s own business (I’ll grant you, these are a bit tamer than some crises one might imagine!) – have all gotten quite a good deal more expensive in the last few years. Add that to a general unease in this age bracket about market volatility and you’ve got a recipe for widespread economic anxiety at middle age.

4. You’re more like to get an STD. So…late divorce isn’t so bad after all, as we learned last week. But sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are actually more of a problem for middle-aged populations right now than they are among the young (at least in the United States.) The highest number of newly acquired cases of HIV/AIDS have been found in middle-aged adults, ages 35 to 44. Next highest age group? Ages 45 to 54. The least affected group is the youngest group between the ages of 25 to 34. Some of this is because women over 50 – no longer afraid of getting pregnant – cease using condoms. So if you are planning on getting back out there with your new-found freedom, by all means come prepared.

5. Who wants to multi-task? One of my favorite cantankerous chroniclers of middle age is Howard Baldwin over on Middle Age Cranky. In a recent post, Baldwin wonders who really wants to learn that as we age, our brains actually improve their ability to problem solve and multi-task? Doesn’t that just mean that boomers will have fewer excuses available to them when they want to plea a senior moment? Just sayin’…

Image: condom display by vista vision via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Be Optimistic About Middle Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired by a barrage of recent scientific studies offering good news about middle age.

Middle age has long been conceptualized as that phase of life where we cease thinking about our potential as human beings, and start focusing on our limitations. No more. While not everything looks rosy (stay tuned for next week’s tip list), there are at least a few trends out there that do bode well for those of us hovering at the mid-point of our lives.

Here are five reasons to feel optimistic:

1. People are living longer. According to scientists, more people than ever before are living to older adulthood. In the U.S., the average lifespan has risen 30 years since 1900. And today’s older adults are better-educated, healthier, more active and more affluent than any previous generation. Plus, as I pointed out last week, the labor market is becoming more diverse and there will be more jobs for the over-55 set. So there’s lots more time – and more to do.

2. Our brains keep evolving. New research also shows that – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. The result? In some respects, we actually think better in middle age. Specifically, inductive reasoning and problem solving improves in the middle-aged brain. We get the gist of an argument better. We arrive at solutions more quickly. Even financial judgments peak in middle age.

3. People are happier over 50. This is also both surprising and welcome news. A survey of more than 340,000 people published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that overall feelings of wellbeing improve as we pass middle age. Specifically, levels of stress, worry and anger all dropped significantly for people in their fifties, while levels of happiness and enjoyment increased. While the study wasn’t designed to identify the causes of increased happiness, scholars speculated that with age comes greater wisdom and emotional intelligence. A similar study carried out in Canada also found that self-esteem is highest among middle-aged boomers. The corollary of all this research? We can probably expect to see fewer mid-life crises.

4. Even divorce can be positive. As the endless analyses of Al and Tipper Gore’s break up tell us, late divorce (i.e. divorce in marriages 20 years or longer) is increasingly common. But it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. A large number of articles that followed on the Gores’ split emphasized late divorce as a form of autonomy and self-actualizationespecially for women – rather than just sticking it out for longevity’s sake. For me, at least, that was the first time I’d seen divorce as a cultural trend discussed in positive terms.

5. The AARP has had a makeover. Yup, that’s right folks. The American Association for Retired Persons (that’s AARP for all those in the know) has had an on-line overhaul in order to cater to the digital demands of the over-50 crowd. So for all you aging Facebook-ers out there, you have a new on-line hang out.

Image: AARP by Somewhat Frank via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons Fish Tank Is For Grown Ups

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Here’s a suggestion for what you ought to do over the upcoming Memorial Day (U.S.)/Bank holiday weekend (U.K.): rent a little movie that came out last year called Fish Tank.

It’s often billed as the U.K.’s answer to Precious. Which is to say that both films treat the subject of poverty, sexuality, dysfunctional families and abuse within an urban setting. But the American film has more of an uplifting, Oprah-esque touch while the British film is raw and bleak. (A bit like the difference between the American and British versions of the television show, The Office.)

I haven’t seen Precious yet, so I can’t speak to the comparison. But I can say that as someone who likes her films sunny side down, Fish Tank really spoke to me and has stayed with me long after I finished watching it.

And I think – like Up In The Air, but for entirely different reasons – it’s also a film about adulthood. Here’s why:

1. It’s about toughness and vulnerability. Once you set eyes on the film’s protagonist – Mia- a scrappy 15-year-old whose life is upended when her mother’s new boyfriend moves in, you won’t take your eyes off of her. Part of this is the fresh, compelling performance by the young actress, Katie Jarvis. But what makes Mia so appealing is that she is in equal measure both tough (she punches a few faces along the way) and vulnerable. (Beneath the toughness we see how painful she finds her social isolation, her verbally abusive mother, and her sexual longing for someone out of her reach.) And that’s what growing up is all about, isn’t it? Learning how to live with disappointment and fear, but also how to protect ourselves from getting hurt.

2. You fall in love with the wrong people. Love Stinks, as the immortal J. Geils Band once told us. And it’s true. At some point in your life – and possible more than once – you inevitably fall in love with the wrong person. They’re too old. They’re too young. They’re married. They’re gay. They’re straight. They live in Timbuktu. It doesn’t matter why. It just can’t work out.  And when Mia looks at her lover who can’t remain her lover for all sorts of reasons, your heart will sink along with hers in recognition of this fundamental truth.

3. Alcohol heals and damages.  When you’re young, it’s liberating to finally sneak that first sip of alcohol. And let’s face it, as you get older, it’s fun to get drunk once in a while. And sometimes – when you’ve been dumped or fired or just had a really bad day – a drink can really help. But when Mia’s 9 or 10 year-old sister starts sipping from a beer can – and you’ve already seen what drinking has done to Mia and especially her mother – you recoil from the image. And you just want to rip the beer can out of her hand. It’s such a fine line, drinking. It’s fun and yet  it can so easily get the best of us. But it takes awhile to figure that out. Ditto sex. But I won’t spoil the movie.

4. Social Class matters. As I wrote in an earlier post about why The Elegance of the Hedgehog is for grown ups – social class is one of those concepts that you can only appreciate once you’re grown up. The idea that where you start often determines where you end up. The idea that if you have no role models they are difficult to invent. The fact that societies don’t often know what to do with the so-called “underclass” – even when it lives right down the road. All of these themes are explored in this film.

5. Having a passion helps. If there’s an uplifting note in this movie, it is Mia’s love of dance. Even though she usually dances alone – in an abandoned council flat (public housing apartment) while drinking beer – dancing brings her joy and may well be her emancipation if she can just figure out what to do with it. It is even one way she manages to connect with her mother. I’ve written before about how important it is to start with what you like and what you’re good at if you want to make a meaningful change in your life. You don’t have to be Baryshnikov. You just need to be passionate about something. Anything. And start there.


Image: Tiny Dancer by Tiziano Caviglia via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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