Book clubs are all the rage. They’re everywhere. Oprah has one. Civic groups and country clubs have them. Chances are your church or synagogue has one. (Come to think of it, they’ve been reading the same book for years). Whether they’re formal and structured, or a free-for-all in someone’s home, book clubs just might be the new social order.
I belong to a book club. Unlike the majority of book clubs, which are populated by bibliophilic women, ours is a couples book club. And as congenial as it is, its very uniqueness creates a set of rather unique challenges.
We’ve been meeting since 2008, which, in itself, is quite remarkable. But first, let me tell you how it all began. Blame it on geography. While there have been changes over the years, we started as seven couples, all friends, who happened to live in the same northeastern town. All of us like to read. Well, almost all of us. We did have a member who was a devout non-reader who was married to a dedicated reader. We allowed him to join us because of his witty comments having nothing to do with the story at hand, and his uncanny ability to entertain us with bird calls.
Over the years, due to age, retirement, a decrease in tolerance for cold weather, and an increase in tolerance for canasta, each dyad eventually set forth along the east coast, and landed, for better or worse, in the sunny state of Florida.
So, like the aforementioned birds, we migrate, twice a year, to where it’s warm, but not too hot. This movement pattern has dictated the frequency of our meetings, which are once a month for ten months of the year. The other two months, one on either side of summer, are spent preparing for the transition and recovering from the trauma of confronting all the “stuff” that travels with us.
But back to the challenges. I am uniquely qualified to discuss these, because I am the book club leader-for-life. Which places me in the same category as the President of Sudan, the Ruler of Turkmenistan, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. I did not ask for this dubious honor. I merely volunteered to lead our very first meeting. Which has taught me a valuable lesson. Keep your mouth shut, and your hands tucked safely beneath your butt.
At each meeting, my first duty as Supreme Leader is settling down 13 enthusiastic people who may not have seen each other between meetings. What a lively bunch! Chatter and cross-conversation are the order of the day, as well as some very dedicated snacking. So one has a choice. Either develop vocal strain or hand out Ritalin. Fortunately, I’m very good at shouting.
Have you ever tried to choose a meeting date that would accommodate 14 people? I don’t recommend it. But somehow we manage each time to find a date where no one has a doctor’s appointment, grandchildren visiting, tickets to a one-night only performance, or a Cousins Club meeting.
Because we are a club of mixed gender, selection of the book-of-the-month also requires special consideration. This tends to rule out chick lit as well as more masculine topics such as an intricate description of the top ten military strategies employed during World War II. All of which are outdated by now anyway. But somehow, each time, we do manage a selection, mixing it up between fiction and non, with a page count that will not require speed-reading before the next gathering.
As the Reluctant Leader, I do try to come prepared to lead at least a semi-intelligent discussion. This works pretty well, unless the snacks are exceptional, in which case passing the salami rolls can seriously interfere with an interpretation of the author’s true meaning. And I’m thinking another Ritalin pill may soon be in order.
And so it goes until we conclude with the highlight of the evening – dinner!
Despite the trials and tribulations described above, I’m truly blessed to be a part of the clan. Our gang has been together in this endeavor for a remarkable fourteen years. Clearly we are all very committed and have made this experience a priority in our lives. We are bound together by books, booze, snacks, and a meal. But best of all, intimacy and love. Long may we read!
Do you ever think about your old flames? I mean, really old. Like the crushes you had in elementary school or junior high? Well, I don’t. At least I didn’t until the other day.
I’m not quite sure what got the little engine in my brain on that track. Maybe it was the bagel I was picking at during breakfast. It was a rather doughy, disappointing version of a sesame bagel, not at all like the crisp tasty bagels of my youth. And remembering the bagels of my youth led me to thoughts of Marvin. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
Assuming you occasionally think about your earliest romances, do you ever contemplate what life might have been like if you had married the dreamboat you met in the sixth grade? Well, I never did. Not until I started thinking about Marvin. But Marvin was not the first. So let me start at the beginning. And in the beginning, there was Robert.
Robert Sunshine and I officially met in the fifth grade. It turned out that we lived on the same street in Brooklyn. It was a street that ran from one avenue to the next, and to my ten-year-old self seemed very long and daunting. After school I longed to see Robert, the best-looking boy at P.S. 48, but was too afraid to walk all the way down that scary street. So, instead, I would spend time in front of my house, hoping his mother would send him to my corner for a quart of milk. They apparently didn’t drink too much milk in their family, because I wasted a lot of time waiting for Robert.
Our relationship was sealed in the sixth grade, when we were both cast in the leads for the school play. I was the princess, and he was my prince. Thus, my fantasy was realized with the unwitting help of Mrs. McQuillan, our teacher, who was directing the production. Until Robert screwed up and was discharged from his princely role for bad behavior. I was devastated, but the show must go on. Randy took his place, but I never fell in love with Randy, although in retrospect, he was actually much cuter than Robert. But you couldn’t have convinced me at that time.
I lost touch with Robert after sixth grade. The street that separated us remained too long to travel, and we no longer went to the same school. I discovered much later in life that he was very successful. So, my future might have been bright had we stayed together. In retrospect, I think it’s best that we parted when we did. His dismissal as my prince no doubt saved me from a lifetime of being referred to as Mrs. Susie Sunshine.
And then there was Marvin. I met Marvin during my middle school years. Marvin’s family owned a bagel bakery in our neighborhood. It was a time when bagel bakeries made only bagels. Really good bagels that were a reasonable size, crisp on the outside, and soft on the inside. I have to say that a good old-fashioned Brooklyn bagel of my youth has spoiled me for all others.
But let’s get back to Marvin. Marvin had a crush on me. I was flattered and pretended to like him in return. But secretly, I had a crush on Marvin’s younger brother, Michael. Michael was friendly but didn’t seem particularly interested in pairing off in our little group of pre-teens. Nevertheless, I hung around Marvin to be near Michael. Not very honest of me, I will admit.
I don’t quite remember how it all ended. I just know that it did, and we all moved on. It’s just as well that I didn’t marry Marvin. I might have continued my infatuation with his brother, been unfaithful, and caused a love triangle with a disastrous conclusion. On the other hand, I might have been queen of a bagel dynasty. And perhaps never again have to put up with a fat, doughy facsimile of my favorite nosh!
I think every woman has had a “bad boy” in her life, and mine had the unlikely biblical name of Avram, or Av, as we called him back in the day. We met while I was in high school. He was a few years older than I and had quit school to join the army. We were introduced while he was on leave. I was seriously smitten. No one I knew had done that. He seemed so worldly and incredibly sexy. My parents were appalled by him, which made him even more desirable. He was stationed somewhere in Louisiana, and I would see him when he was on leave. So why didn’t I stay with Av? Well, he dumped me. Via a “Dear Jane” letter. He met someone in Baton Rouge, or wherever he was serving, and he was going to marry her. Marry her! And here I was, back in Brooklyn, sacrificing my senior prom because he wasn’t here to accompany me!
I have no idea what happened to Avram. Maybe he wound up as an accountant. Or perhaps a card-carrying member of The Hell’s Angels. In any event, I believe he did me a big favor. I might have run off with him if he had asked. And my path in life might not have led to where and with whom I am today. Which is exactly where I want to be!
I’m pleased and excited to announce the release on Tuesday, October 4th, of my third book of essays: Laughing My Way Through the Third Stage: Selected Essays that Skewer the Golden Years. Unlike my first two books, whose essays addressed the random irritants of everyday life, I have devoted this volume to all of you who are sharing my journey through the decades. In other words, those of you old enough to still be using AOL as your email address and stubbornly refusing to give it up! And even if you’re not, I’m sure you know someone who is who could use a good laugh.
The book will be immediately available at Amazon, and other on-line booksellers, in both soft-cover and Kindle editions. And with a little luck, you will also be able to find it on the shelf of your local bookstore. I’ll keep you posted about that.
Borrowing from Amazon, who allows you to “Look Inside” before purchase, I’m offering a sneak peek between the covers. Below is the Introduction and the reason why I chose to write this book. And if enough of you decide to buy it, I’ll consider investing in a new sweater!
“The older you get, I have to say, the funnier you find life. That’s the only way to go. If you get serious about yourself as you get old, you are pathetic.”
The quote above is from Diana Rigg, the actress, born 1938, died 2020. I found it in The New York Times on Monday, December 28, 2020, on a page that was a tribute to culture notables who died that year. Diana, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I, like many other vintage Americans, was introduced to Diana Rigg when she played Mrs. Emma Peele in the 1960s TV spy import from Britain, The Avengers. She was twenty-seven at the time. Younger fans remember her as the sharp-tongued Olenna from Game of Thrones. She was then seventy-five. In between is a long list of her other roles, from Shakespeare to James Bond.
If I’m correctly interpreting the intent of Dame Diana’s statement, I believe she’s saying that if one laments all the indignities of aging, there is a risk of seeing oneself as a sad and pitiable creature. In other words, pathetic!
When I started my blog over ten years ago (that I have borrowed from for some of the essays in this book), the goal was to exercise my third stage privilege of commenting on life with a bit of cynicism and satire. So, it was inevitable that as I moved further along the aging spectrum, I would turn that irony upon myself. After reading the words of Diana Rigg, I took stock of the occasions when I had actually made fodder out of my own condition.
I have questioned the wisdom of, at a certain age, paying a higher price for a product because it comes with a life-time warranty. I applied the same logic before I chose to undergo some very expensive dental work. Did it come with a guarantee that I would outlive my teeth?
Skewering fashion and our changing body image is something that has brought me joy. The foolishness of trying to navigate a journey of a quarter mile wearing four-inch heels. The trauma of needing a new bathing suit. The question of whether going sleeveless was permissible after a certain age. Or creating a new publication, The AARP Fall Fashion Preview, after recognizing that, as an “older” woman, the glossy fashion magazines had nothing in them for me.
And talk about losses! And who, at this age, doesn’t talk about losses? And losses come in many shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, there is the loss of friends, which is never funny. But what about the informal agenda of my husband’s annual high school reunions? First, there is the rundown of the condition of one’s body parts, then, who knows the best doctors, and finally, a drug update. All of which leads to the inevitable “alive or dead” game as they try to figure out if so-and-so, whom no one has heard from in quite a while, is simply ignoring the group or something worse.
I’ve written about losing my fingerprints, my left shoulder, the ability to sleep through the night, and losing almost two inches of height. Losing my cataracts was a welcome loss, but not without its downside. Seeing my face after the gauzy fil was removed from my eyes made me want to consider cosmetic surgery as part of my aftercare.
And, f course, who could resist taking stabs at a society that tends to devalue us as we age. I say rail at those who judge us as dinosaurs because we still use AOL. And fie on the media who insists on describing anyone over sixty as elderly.” Or those who say “she used to be very pretty” about a woman of a certain age because she doesn’t look like she did when she was sixteen.
There are more essays I could mention, but I think I’ve made my point about a shared philosophy. And so, dear Diana, it’s too bad you never got to read my blog posts. You would have been very proud of me!
And let me end this with some wisdom from another celebrity icon, Betty White, who loved to nearly 100. In an interview on Entertainment Tonight, she said that she planned to spend her 100th birthday in quarantine due to Covid. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite make it. And what did she say was the secret to a long life? Why, a sense of humor, of course.
About the Author
Susan is the author of two award-winning collections of humorous personal essays: “How Old Am I in Dog Years?” and “How to Complain When There’s Nothing to Complain About.” Check out her Author Page HERE.