The freedom of a few gray hairs
Anna Quindlen has taken on a lot of hot topics as an editorial writer, first at the New York Times and later at Newsweek: war, politics, abortion, religion. And she has tackled some of the most pressing issues of our time in her best-selling novels: domestic violence, feminism, terminal illness. But never has she been more introspective and candid than in her new collection of essays on growing older.
In the sublime Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Quindlen, 59, clearly is embracing middle age (with just the tiniest bit of help from the dermatologist). From facing an empty nest at home to facing wrinkles in the mirror, she writes incisively about her life now and what she owes to the generations of women who came before her. One of her columns at the Times was called “Life in the 30s,” in which she wrote about being a working mom with three young children. Her new effort could easily be subtitled “Life in the 50s.”
“The title of this book says it all. I find this a really satisfying and ultimately joyful time of my life,” Quindlen says by phone from her brownstone in New York City. But let’s not get too crazy with the “I love middle age” talk—Quindlen is quick to admit she’s not above what she calls her “annual pilgrimage to the Fountain of Botox” to erase the worry lines between her eyes.
“I never colored my hair. I haven’t had any surgery,” she says. “But I guess more than anything else I want to look like I feel and by that I don’t mean young, I mean happy. Just for the record, I love Botox. I do it once a year and I have no qualms about it.”
"The title of this book says it all. I find this a really satisfying and ultimately joyful time of my life."
In one of the most thought-provoking essays in the book, “Mirror, Mirror,” Quindlen delves into our society’s cult of youth and its disproportionate impact on women.
“We don’t really have any idea of how we ought to look anymore, just how we’re told we ought to want to look,” she writes. “Women were once permitted a mourning period for their youthful faces; it was called middle age. Now we don’t even have that. Instead we have the science of embalming disguised as grooming. A lot of plastic surgery is like spray tan. It doesn’t look like a real tan at all. It looks like a tan in an alternate universe in which everyone is orange. It’s a universe in which it seems no one has gray hair, except for me.”
It’s the kind of funny and sharp writing for which Quindlen is known and loved. She isn’t afraid to go below the surface, though. In another essay, Quindlen admits to an uneasy relationship with moderation, which culminated with her quitting drinking when her youngest child was a baby. That she considers herself a recovering alcoholic is a somewhat startling revelation for someone who has put so much of her personal life in print.
“It was a really big chunk that I was not sharing with readers who have gotten used to knowing things about me,” Quindlen admits, adding that it was something she needed to make sure her family was comfortable about sharing. “It is one of the few things I could share with readers that might be helpful. To the extent that people think of recovering alcoholics as deeply flawed, I wanted to communicate that there are many who are just fine.”
She said no major event led her to stop drinking (for the record, her last drink was a Heineken). “It’s just in any face-off with alcohol, I lost,” she says.
Quitting drinking was just one of the ways that motherhood changed Quindlen, and in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, she does a lot of thinking about the challenges of modern motherhood.
“Compared to some of the mothers I see today, we were remarkably relaxed,” she says. “I do have to say, in defense of young mothers today, we were kind of the test batch—first pancakes on the griddle. We all thought we were going to combine motherhood and work, and did it in a seat-of-the-pants way. We were relaxed to the extent that we didn’t know what we were doing. Suddenly, there’s a right way to find a nanny and there’s a right way to stimulate infants. Here’s how I believe you stimulate infants—you have another child and you lay the baby on the floor and have them watch him! Suddenly we’ve made motherhood a job that’s so overwhelming, it astonishes me that anyone could do it. When women score freedom, they somehow have to pay for it, and right now that is being an über-mom. Not only is this not good for women, it’s not good for kids either. This ‘helicopter mom’ [trend] cripples them.”
In her book, Quindlen pays tribute to the more laid-back parenting style of her own mother (who died of ovarian cancer when Quindlen was 19) and ponders how it influenced her child-rearing.
“I’m keenly aware of maybe something my mother knew, too, which is that a lot of the raw material was there already,” Quindlen says. “For example, my kids are really smart and pretty confident, and a lot of that was already built in. Could I have encouraged that or tamped that down? Probably. But some of what being a good mom meant for me was to get out of the way. Given how naturally inclined I am to micromanage everything, I’d give myself about a B-plus.”
These days, she and husband Gerry Krovatin, an attorney she met in college, have an empty nest (mostly—their three children all live “within, like, a few subway stops”). But Quindlen says not too much has changed.
“We live in a house in New York which nominally is occupied only by Gerry and me,” she says. “However, all three bedrooms are maintained as shrines. Once you do it with one of them you have to do it with all of them. All three of our children live elsewhere in their own places, but it is not uncommon for them to drop in for dinner or for me to come home from errands and find a cereal bowl with an inch of milk in it.”
The kids may have grown and graduated, but Quindlen follows the same writing schedule she had back when she was juggling motherhood and a career. “I still write during school hours,” she says with a laugh. “I’m really a creature of habit. I’m still always a little shocked I don’t have kids to pick up.”
Another habit she can’t—and likely won’t—break is New York. She attended Barnard College, and never left.
“My metabolism and the metabolism of New York City are the same,” she says. “It’s like what they say about the amount of salt in the ocean being the same as amniotic fluid. What drives New York City is the same thing that drives me. The car culture . . . something inside me just shuts down. I grew up in the suburbs, but this is my natural habitat.”
Perhaps the biggest shift for this creature of habit was giving up her role as a leading opinion writer. After two columns at the Times (and one Pulitzer) and nine years writing the popular column “The Last Word” for Newsweek, Quindlen says it was time to hand that role to a new generation.
“I feel that columnists need to leave while they’re sharp. I felt I still was, but it was time,” she explains. “You need a much younger woman to do this. We need more of those younger voices out there. The pundit class in America today is very white and very male and very gray. I want to know what younger people are thinking and talking about.”
Gracious as this may seem, don’t count Quindlen out yet. With this provocative, moving new book, Quindlen proves she may be at the midpoint of life, but she’s at the top of her game.