Another view of 70- and 80-somethings


My last post was about the difficulty of getting used to dramatic changes in our appearance in our seventies and eighties. Thank you for your comments, my friends: so it’s not just me who is struggling with identity problems at 76?

I can’t resist posting this photograph of my friend and role model Sunny Amey on the left and the heroine of my novel, Fixing Mrs Philpott, on the right. Sunny is probably about 86 (ages are so forgettable).  She is wise, brilliant, naughty, witty, and always and forever her inimitable self. By contrast, that Mrs Philpott really is stuck in the past. She inhabits a fantasy world where there is no need ever for rudeness, which she abhors.

That’s Sunny splitting her sides with laughter, and Mrs Philpott expressing her prim disapproval of the speech that Sunny made in praise of the author, Rachel McAlpine. She also insists that the novel, which is fiction, and therefore not true, is not rude as in 50 Shades of Grey, but more like 31 Shades of Salmon Pink—much nicer.

If that’s not an identity problem, I don’t know what is. And that’s not the half of it.

Of selfies, avatars, prosopagnosia and identity

In the age of selfies we try to control how the world sees us

bootcamp2015-small 2In which I ponder the disparity between the perception of self held by others and the person concerned, and the volatile nature of self image.


“Be who you are.”

What on earth does that mean, be who I am? I see this as one of the toughest tasks in my self-imposed boot camp for the bonus years. It looks easy, because who else would you be if not yourself? But aging, like puberty, challenges and changes our sense of self.

In one sense I still feel just like a five-year-old — don’t you? But I look in the mirror and I do not see a five-year-old or even a fifty-year-old. I see a funny old woman and I have to get used to the sight of her.

So for now, let’s think about that person in the mirror, who is, according to logic and science, a reflection of ourselves.

Selfies for the young

Once upon a time it was possible to avoid looking at photos of ourselves. They were small and slurry and sepia. As children we were lined up a few times a year for the Brownie box camera, and it never occurred to us to protest or care.

But once we hit puberty, we all care about how we look. I tried to look pale and interesting whenever a camera appeared, which luckily wasn’t often. I worried about my awful haircut, I primped and patted, and I was fascinated by the cute models in Seventeen.

I presume most of my contemporaries were equally preoccupied with their changing appearance, but how would I know? An unsuspected case of prosopagnosia (face blindness) doubtless exacerbated my own identity puzzle.

Considering the metamorphosis of puberty, even a young woman with a healthy self-respect is forced to adjust her self image at that time. Thanks to self-facing (not self-effacing) phone cameras, photo apps and social media, young people can shape their image instantly, frequently and publicly.

Rachel Syme sees the selfie as an exercise in assertiveness and pride.

Avatars for the old

But never mind the young: how about older people swept up in life changes that are every bit as scary as the dawn of adulthood? We too wonder how we are supposed to look, especially when merely looking old is such a horrible fate, when President Obama takes the very word “old” as an insult. He bats away a student questioner who asks sincerely for his perspective on “aging toward a very senior life.”

“That’s pretty low!” replied Obama and “C’mon, you hurt my feelings.” All right, it was meant as a joke. But what are our options if looking old is not allowed? Dying young? Endless plastic surgery? Amortality?

If you’re on social media or in business or otherwise in the public eye, you’re obliged to display some photographs of your head and shoulders. As I get older, updating avatars and publicity photos has become somewhat intimidating.

Selfie-haters may righteously distinguish between avatars and selfies. But even if we just grab part of a casual shot for our avatar, we are still consciously manipulating the way we look, deliberately choosing the way we wish to be perceived. Who are we, now, at our age? Are we still carefree adolescents under the skin? And is that what others see? Doubt it!

Image from “The Book of Photography, Practical, Theoretical and Applied” (1905) Paul Hasluck and Arthur Hands. No known copyright restrictions.

Touchy about hearing loss?

It’s funny how people tend to be more sensitive about their hearing than their eyesight.

I certainly include myself in this over-sensitive group. Cheerfully I admit to hearing loss. Proudly I wear my cunning little Phonax hearing aids. But poke me the wrong way and I’ll still bristle with indignation.

Partly, I’m reacting to another funny thing about human nature: I’ve noticed that the more defensive people are about their own hearing, the more they are likely to comment on other people’s hearing.

So when a person with poor hearing comments on my poor hearing, logic flees. These two people are incapable of having a sensible conversation on the topic of hearing, because rumbling under the spoken words are other powerful silent messages, such as…

“Your hearing is worse than my hearing.”
“You need hearing aids.”
“Pot calling the kettle black.”

And our listening gets worse and worse. Neither of us can bear to hear certain truths.

During one such exchange recently, a sister had to step in and tell us two deafish persons to drop the subject. Our conversation was going nowhere. Being over-sensitive about our hearing had made us socially inept. And rude. And deaf.

This is kind of weird, don’t you think? I never pick up on similar vibes about eyesight. Maybe that’s just me. I love glasses.

Life lessons for myself

  • If you’ve got poor eyesight, flaunt it—like Dame Edna Everage
  • If other people say you are getting deaf, you are getting deaf
  • Hearing aids are not perfect but they are cute


Day 2 of the new earthquake era

Wet roof over a wet city and one bare foot raised in a tai chi kick.
Doing tai chi as rain sets in. Good morning world!

Well, it’s about 60 hours since the big earthquake and my short exercise in expressive writing has already done its magic. In my last blog post I vented my secret thoughts and feelings, no matter how embarrassing.

3 meditation apps

Last night I slept brilliantly for nearly six hours and dozed nicely for two more, aided by a passive meditation with the little blue man (Andrew Johnson’s meditation phone app).

Then the morning routine begins. Meditate, ah, breathe slowly—nice. Then tai chi on the deck as rain set in—nice. I finish like this, hoping the neighbours don’t hear me:

“Good morning, world! What can I do for you today?”

Quick as a flash, the world replies: “Stop whinging.”

“OK. Got it!”

Yet again,  writing has done one of its magic tricks. Ruled a line under self pity—because I did my whinging well and truly, out loud, on this blog. And because the world (meaning you, dear readers) heard me with compassion, and validated me in my weakness.

So now I can stop whinging. I like to think I have turned my angst into energy.

Right. Time to get back to work. I love that…

What to do in an earthquake: write

Geonet earthquake app

You freeze until you register what’s happening: a long, strong earthquake shaking the bed east-west-east. And shaking. During that everlasting two minutes, you stop, drop and cover under a table or doorway.

The shaking stops and you put on random clothes and locate the bug-off bag in case you have to leave.

Immediately a series of aftershocks begins.

Earthquake routine: texting

Ever since the first Christchurch earthquake in October 2010 you keep your cellphone by the bed, fully charged. (To hell with the screen-free bedroom.) You text your children. You text your sisters. You text other apartment owners. You text friends. You answer text after text. Nearly everyone is OK.

You don’t call because you know that the cellphone system will be overloaded—you just send a short curt signal of love: xxx.

But some family have hurried to high ground, and others are stranded in Kaikoura with its broken roads and rivers and communications. Where are they? What are they doing?

Sucking up news

You consult

NZ Daylight Time, Mon, Nov 14 2016, 12:02:56 am. Depth, 15 km. Magnitude, 7.5 . Location, 15 km north-east of Culverden.

You download the Geonet app. Now it pops out information about every aftershock. Poppity-popp! Poppity-popp! They are almost continuous.

Recent earthquakes in New Zealand: every minute

You turn on Radio New Zealand. Two calm, competent, familiar women reporters are giving updates, humanising experiences, urging commonsense, calming fears, and giving a tsunami warning. (Oh Radio New Zealand, we need you! And the government wants to cut your funding!)

Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. You feel useless and confused.  You escape into sleep for a couple of hours.

Return of Responsible Rachel

After the big earthquake Wellington looks OK to me… but …

You wake up, text some more, do Facebook, shower (we have water! we have sewers!), make breakfast (we have gas! electricity! food!)  Ferries are stopped—wharves and a rail bridge damaged.

You visit a few key people in your street and all is well. You do other Responsible Things.

Hey, we’re OK! For decades Wellington people have feared The Big One, knowing that our city squats on a major earthquake fault. We have just had a big one, and it was OK.

Every earthquake is different, and feels different in different places. 7.5 on the Richter scale is a very big earthquake, bigger than the first one that devastated Christchurch, but it’s different. Our 76-year-old reinforced concrete building stood firm and so far has survived without a scratch.

Not so fast…

You can’t settle. Everything you planned to do today is off. Gym closed, schools closed, city centre forbidden as buildings are inspected. There’s liquefaction near the harbour. Tsunami warnings go off and on. But the rubbish truck arrives on schedule, lovely lovely man making everything seem normal.

Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp.

Damage to road and rail near Kaikoura. Photo: NZTA

Then the extent of the damage starts to emerge. Two people have died. The main highway from Blenheim to Christchurch will take months to rebuild. Friend’s house is trashed. Railways closed. Stories. More stories.

Waiting, waiting, waiting

Text: Dad and Robyn are ok...yay! Kaikoura earthquake news

Thank you God. Our two precious people are still with us.

They have a story. I don’t have a story. I am just a blob in a building.

Wow! We just had 4 entire minutes between aftershocks! Then poppity-popp, here we go again.

I am fine fine fine. My family is fine fine fine.My house is fine fine fine. My city will be fine again — even if this is a beginning of an era, not an episode. This is a mere hiccup compared with the Kobe earthquake (which did traumatise me a bit) or the endlessly recycled torture inflicted on the people of Canterbury for the last six years.

Wellington had been New Zealand’s designated Earthquake City. Everyone knew we were sitting on a major fault line and were due to be shattered any time soon. We felt shocked and guilty when Canterbury was hit by apocalyptic quakes instead. Hey, wrong address!

I’ve completed certain mindless tasks. Erased markings on the score of Donizetti’s Requiem that our choir sang yesterday. Did a load of laundry. Played solitaire.

Feeling another quake as we speak

Oh god that’s the tsunami hooter! I’m OK, I’m on a hill — but what’s happening on the beaches, in the harbour? Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. And again. My heart speeds up in time with the shakes.

When in doubt, write

There’s nothing I can do for anyone else right now. Even talking on the phone is self-indulgent today. I want to stay close to home. I want to visit my daughters but I don’t trust the city to sit still long enough for me to walk to them. Anyway it’s pouring and gales are forecast. So I’m doing what comes naturally: writing.

In the process I have discovered various feelings and thoughts.

  • I feel like a fraud, an imposter
  • I’ve got survivor guilt because my city, Earthquake City, is sort of probably OK
  • I feel selfish and narcissistic and petty and unimportant because I’m writing my own boring story (which is not a story) for no good reason
  • I feel useless and unworthy and again guilty because I’m not out there helping
  • I feel a tiny shudder of PTSD, remembering Kobe
  • I feel stupid because I can’t think of anything better to do than write
  • I feel lonely, even though I could go and have a cup of tea with my friends next door.

Do not feel sorry for me—that was not my point!

As a writing teacher I know that this is a good thing to do: to write about your troubles. Not venting over and over again. Just purging those queer irrational thoughts and feelings once or twice. It is OK, it is normal to have abnormal thoughts and feelings in difficult times. And writing about them makes it easier to move on.

Except in this case, the earth will do the moving.

There! See! I made a joke! Told you writing was a good thing!

I would delete this blog post, except that it is an example about what you might write (for yourself alone) in a time of earthquakes. Write anything, however boring, however strange. It’s for you, not for other people. Writing helps.

Random impromptu decluttering works too

Faithful books, I do not need you anymore. Begone to the secondhand shop!

Sometimes I surprise myself with a sudden rush of activity that is maybe necessary but low priority. Today, hours after Mr Trump became President Elect of the USA, I made huge inroads into my cluttered, dusty, illogical bookshelves. I ignored items #1–5 on the to-do list and did #99 instead.

  • 26 books for Arty Bees, Wellington’s phenomenal second hand bookstore
  • 30-odd utterly random books on a take-or-exchange shelf for my AirBnB guests
  • 20-odd wrinkled, yellowed, musty books into the paper recycling
  • 12 books earmarked for Christmas gifts

As if that wasn’t enough, wham! I adjusted some shelves and a couch so that books are more accessible and in their rightful place. Work-books in the study. Poetry in the sitting room.

Identity clutter and all that

Lots of redundant possessions are tangled up with identity, aren’t they?

  • Keeping old books by my friends meant I was a Good Friend. But if they are falling to bits or if I’ll never re-read them, better to send them to another happy reader.
  • I had a lot of good books about content management, the internet, web design and business strategy — but I’m not a Business Woman any more. That identity is gone forever.
  • For years I’ve had certain special interests which now I am ready to let go. For example, I will never again be a Noh Playwright, I think we’ve established that. One Noh play is sufficient for my portfolio.

Most decluttering advice urges us to be super-systematic, super-organized. I see the point, but it’s great to outwit yourself and rush at it like a bull at a gate.

Gosh I did well: item #99 is more than half completed. O-kaaaay, now for to-do items #1–5— piece of cake, I’m on a roll!

Election-connection? No idea. Any suggestions?

Random selection of books for AirBnB guests

Joining a gym at 75: a weighty move

More strength to your elbow, madam!

bootcamp2015-small 2

In which the Sergeant Major wins a tough battle and sends me off the practise calisthenics (in modern parlance, strength exercise, at a local gym.

Finally I did it: joined a gym. I’ve done it twice before, lasting a couple of years each time. But this time, I’m serious.

For years, neuroscientists have been discovering and proving and publishing a single message loud and clear: exercise is pure gold, a panacea, catholicon, philosopher’s stone and holy grail all rolled into one. If you care about maintaining a healthy brain into old age and if you follow health and lifestyle news even casually, you know this already.

No need to wait for dementia: how to be daft right now

So we all know, at some level, that to sit around all day is just plain crazy. That’s an interesting choice: to knowingly live in a way that makes you more likely to go daft in the future.

What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Exercise is the starting point for geriatric sanity. Better body, better brain. Not surprising, when the brain is part of the body and needs a truckload of blood and oxygen to function well.

Easy for me to say, when my joints and limbs are still mobile. But I’ve made a vow to move whatever part of my body I can move until the day I die. I am growing the habit of taking my body seriously. It’s been good to me, and I must return the compliment.

A top-of-list life change

Some life changes are exponentially powerful compared with others. They send off ripples that affect the rest of your life.

Regular exercise is one of these. It lifts your spirits, counteracts depression, gets more blood to your brain, helps you think more clearly, and somehow helps get rid of physical niggles. It may also raise your levels of confidence and optimism. It often has a social component which is good for us too. Exercise improves your sleep and even starts some people eating healthier.

I knew all this. (So did you!)

The missing link

Before the boot camp self-inquisition, my exercise regime had a few fixed pegs (tai chi every morning and dance rehearsals every Wednesday evening) and a few depends-on-the-weather items (random swims, random walks on Mt Victoria). Also, I walk around town doing my chores: big deal, not.

The more I read about exercise for the elderly, the more I could see that two things were missing in my life: a weekly schedule and strength building.

My sergeant major yelled at me about this every hour on the hour.

And yet, and yet … I postponed acting on this knowledge for six months. Back in January of my boot camp year, I already knew I must review my exercise habits. I procrastinated by focusing on less important changes. I procrastinated by reading scientific studies and books. I procrastinated by budgeting. I procrastinated by investigating every gym in town, looking up bus timetables, drawing up schedules that might work.

Finally I took myself by surprise. I attended a trial Power class at a gym close to me, called the Exodus. (Exodus from where, I wonder—Slobvania?) I joined the gym straight after trying the class. Since then I’ve attended two Power classes every week and I feel very happy about the change.

My new schedule includes a good dose of exercise every day from Monday to Friday. I’m happy about this too.

But hey, in the weekends I will just slop around as usual. Like now, for instance, I’m just a dear old granny typing to myself in a rocking chair.

My little one-kilo weights are cuter than Angela’s but they still work fine

Drawing from Hand-book of calisthenics and gymnastics : a complete drill-book for schools, families, and gymnasiums : with music to accompany the exercises (1864) Watson, J. Madison. Public domain. Photo of Angela at the Exodus gym: Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 3.0