Lately, I've been looking for a sign that I should my job of 21 years, complete my MFA in creative writing, and have time to develop and promote my novels and my blog. To some, this may seem like a no-brainer. If I can afford to do it (which I can) I should go for it, because life is short and opportunities to follow our dreams are limited.
But my job isn't just a "job", nobody's is when they're a teacher. The school where I teach, the community it is in, the students & staff - they're all a part of me. I would be a different person than I am today, had I not taught there. And faced with the prospect of cleaning out my classroom, packing up my books and lesson plans, and saying goodbye - well, it hurts. There's no escaping that pain, not if I intend to leave.
Of course, I wouldn't quit all together. I'd apply for a leave of absence, but the minimum leave is three years. I will ask for part-time, but it seems doubtful they'll accommodate that request. I can come back and sub, but that might be more a more attractive option in theory than in reality.
Here's the truth: there is no way to take a jump without sacrificing this emotional safety net. So much of my life, my routine, and my identity is wrapped up in being a teacher. Yet, perhaps that's part of the reason I should go. If I stopped teaching today, I could be proud of what I've accomplished, what I've taught and what I've learned, and I could look back on my career with pride. I would have no major regrets.
I can't say that about writing. For almost as long as I've been teaching, I have been writing novels, but I have always had to divide writing my time with work obligations, and I'm left wondering what I could achieve if I had the opportunity to focus solely on being a writer.
It looks as if I might find out. I've had some conversations at work and people are supportive, as are other important people in my life. Still, I've been wavering. Then, the other day I found my "sign" that I'm doing the "write" thing by taking this chance.
It was an article about Brooke Baldwin, from CNN. She's leaving the network with no real prospects or new opportunity to move on to, other than recently publishing a book. She hasn't given a reason for leaving, other than she'd gotten "too comfortable." Reading that made it okay to tell myself it's okay to give up comfort. I can embrace feeling scared of unstructured time and days spent not talking to anyone. I can live with not knowing what will happen - if I will publish, or find a job teaching college level writing, or if I will return to old my old teaching job.
It's time to embrace the unknown and make the leap. It's the "write" time!
A short while back, I was watching Tell Me All Your Secrets on Amazon Prime, which is a really good show that I recommend. Here’s the premise: a youngish woman (played by Lily Rabe) gets out of jail on the witness protection program. Her ex-boyfriend is a convicted serial killer and there are still several missing girls the authorities believe he might have been murdered, so Lily Rabe’s job is to help with that and tell them whatever she can. Meanwhile, the mother (played by Amy Brenneman) of a missing girl is desperate to find her daughter, and she’s set on finding Lily Rabe, who she believes is complicit in her daughter’s disappearance.
Of course, there’s more to both characters than what’s immediately obvious, but it seemed to me that the viewer is made to think that Lily Rabe is the villain and Amy Brenneman is sympathetic, but slowly our perception shifts until it becomes clear who we’re supposed to be rooting for. And at first, I’m like, “Oh, that’s clever, making this grieving mom sort of diabolical,” but then I thought better of it.
Because I asked myself to name one drama, either a film or on TV, where a lead female character is sympathetic, over fifty, and whose primary function is something other than being someone’s wife or mother.
I came up blank.
I asked Twitter, and got a few responses, like Prime Suspect and Murder She Wrote. I just finished watching The Undoing on HBO, which starred Nicole Kidman, and I think that show fits into my criteria as Kidman’s character drives the plot and she’s very sympathetic, but even though I’m sure she was over 50 when it was filmed, I believe her character is supposed to be in her 40s. Nicole Kidman can totally pull that off. She’s still ingenue-like, though just barely.
Anyway, then I started thinking about how, in movies and TV, there's this pervasive pattern of mean, older women tormenting innocent younger women. Just look at Disney: Cinderella & Snow White and their evil stepmothers, Ariel and the Sea Witch, Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent. Even the Disney films about animals, like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, feature a young wife/mother as the pet owner and an older, evil single woman, like Cruella Devil, who gets off on puppy abuse.
Now, I’m sure I’m missing many examples of films with fully-formed, sympathetic characters played by a lead actress who’s in her fifties or older (and if you can think of any, please list them in the comments below.) However, the list of films with fully-formed male sympathetic characters would be vastly longer, and of that, I am supremely confident.
What bothers me about this isn’t so much about the disparity between genders, instead, it’s more what it says about relationships between females. Like, a mature woman can’t be supportive of a younger woman without being jealous of said young woman’s youth and desirability, and that the mature woman's jealousy will automatically turn her into a duplicitous bitch. Or, that any woman “of a certain age” who does not primarily nurture a husband or kids must be aggressive and emotionally bereft. Any woman who is no longer seen as young and beautiful is bitter and withered, both on the outside and in her soul.
Thus, I’ve decided to create a character for my next work-in-progress who is female, sympathetic, and though she’ll be in her fifties, she will still be on a path of discovery. People commented on my story, “We All Own the Sky”, that they think it should continue, so I’ve been sketching out ideas, and I aim to create a 50ish female security guard who wishes she'd become a detective, so now she’s like Nancy Drew, only she's in late middle-age. And though she’ll be at odds with the young woman who’s also at the center of the story, neither of them will be villains.
And after my book is written, published, becomes a huge bestseller and then made into a TV series (which, DUH! Of course it will...) I’ll have to choose who will be the star: Nicole Kidman or Amy Brenneman? Decisions, decisions...
It started at birth. Morgan, my fraternal twin, got the 1980s-soap-opera-star name. I got “Maud”, named after a fictional old-lady-serial-killer. After that, God seemed determined to keep the imbalance going. Morgan ran faster than any boy in our class and she always made the goal or caught the ball. I was asthmatic, always last to be picked for a team in gym class. Morgan’s springy blond curls were her crown, unexpected and exceptional, marking her as royalty and ascending her to class president every year since sixth grade. My brunette hair was always pulled back into a ponytail, and the only time I stood out was at band class, when I played the piano, my fingers gliding over the keys. Music was the one thing Morgan wasn’t good at. She could never carry a tune; she can’t even clap to a rhythm.
For my birthday, I was given a subscription to Master Class, which is great, because I am the sort of person who reads course catalogs for fun. When I first logged on to Master Class, I was asked to click on the courses I was interested in, and, well… if Master Class was a dating site, I’d be that gal who right swipes for anyone who has a pulse & doesn’t appear to be a serial killer.
First, a disclaimer: I realize using the word “girl” in regards to turning 50 is both inaccurate and a bit diminishing. I am a woman and I should be proud of my wisdom, sophistication, and life experience. I am proud. However, using “girl” in regards to my 50th birthday slaps a bit of youthfulness onto the occasion, and if I can’t be young anymore, I can at least feel youthful.
So, how do I celebrate turning 50? I’ll be honest; I’d really rather not. I get that I don’t have a choice, at least not about the “turning 50” part, but I’m not clear on how to celebrate this milestone. Because here’s the thing: even if I live to be 100 (which I plan to do) I’m still, at the very least, entering the second half of my life. And as more time goes by, it only speeds up, so really, perception-wise, more than half my life is over. It’s tempting to think all the adventurous parts are, anyway.
Except, I have it pretty dang good. I am a teacher. I am happily married and we have two healthy, strong individuals as children (but my son will fly in the nest soon and that makes me sad.) I write novels, though not with the same drive that I used to. But everyday, I look for new ways to explore the possibilities, to learn or change for the better, even in this time of Covid 19. The possibilities are still there, but they’ve changed, become more quiet, more settled, and more predictable. Just like me.
So, how do I celebrate? I Googled “benefits of turning 50” and what came up was some pretty exciting stuff, especially the part about free colonoscopies. I mean, sign me up! (But seriously, I know it’s time to get a colonoscopy and I promise to make an appointment once the pandemic is over. On a lighter note, that National Park Pass sounds pretty good…)
As long as I’m laying it all out there, I’ll mention another hindrance I have about celebrating 50. Many older women say that they started to feel invisible when they reached a certain age. Because, once a lady is no longer attractive and/or able to bear children, people don’t see or hear her anymore. I know that’s extreme and it doesn’t have to happen. Look at Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris & Elizabeth Warren, or at actresses/entertainers like Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Lopez. None of them are invisible. However, I can’t aspire to be them because I’m not a celebrity with a team of stylists or handlers, and honestly, being any one of them sounds like way too much work.
So, perhaps I won’t celebrate being 50, but I will still, obviously, turn 50. Thus, I’ve decided that instead of celebrating and putting pressure on myself to be happy, I will allow the bittersweet, nostalgic sentiments to seep in. I will allow myself a bit of sadness on this day. And, I will also accept myself and who I am and try my best to rock turning 50 and to be okay with it, even if I’m not over the moon.
I haven’t wanted to admit my age for a long time. Being youthful has always been a part of who I am. Yet, who I am is changing, and there is no shame in turning 50. I can still be myself at this age, I can still be heard and seen, and I can own this milestone, even if I don’t celebrate it. So this is me, announcing to the world, I AM 50. WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?
Also, just to be clear - no matter what I age I turn, I will always celebrate my birthday, even if I don’t celebrate my age. I love cake and presents, so bring em’ on! And ten years from now, I’ll look back and realize how good I had it, to be turning 50 years young.
lLet’s talk about “Karen”. Karen is a white woman who takes her privilege for granted and she uses her power by diminishing or degrading others in the process. Conservatives think Karens are women who consider themselves woke, and that Karens go around telling others that they’re not anti-racist enough. To them, Nancy Pelosi is the ultimate Karen, because she is a woman who uses her gavel, rips up Trump’s speech, and claps at Trump slowly and maliciously. Meanwhile, liberals feel that the ultimate Karen is the woman who demands to “speak to your manager” and refuses to wear a mask because her freedoms are being infringed upon, and she degrades anyone who isn’t white. To them, the ultimate Karen is the woman who was walking her dog this summer and called the cops on a black man who was merely bird watching.
I know which side I’m on. There is no way Nancy Pelosi is a Karen. She has fought hard for her power. It doesn’t come through privilege. It comes through determination, scrappiness, and political savvy. And if she uses that gavel or stares down Trump, well, good. He deserves everything she has thrown his way. In addition, I don’t agree that any liberal woman could be a Karen, because a liberal woman wouldn’t be trying to rob others of their power, she would be fighting to give others more power, even if she might be accidentally misguided in how she goes about it.
Yet, even if we can all agree that a true Karen is the abusive, “let me talk to your manager” type, I still take issue with some aspects of the Karen stereotype. First, there’s the haircut. What’s so wrong with an inverted bob? I’ve worn a subtle version of one for years. I don’t do the bangs or poof it out, but there’s not much I can do with my sorry, thin, white-woman limp hair, and the inverted bob has been my go-to style for decades. There’s not much I can change about my hair, and I don’t like being judged for it.
I also don’t like people telling Karen to “calm down.” It plays into the whole hysterical female trope. Now, to be clear, I don’t condone entitled women who toss around their privilege in an abusive way. However, I do have trouble with the term “Karen”, just in general. Putting aside the unfair persecution of an innocuous name, no matter how you see it, a “Karen” has to be female and she has to be in a position of power, and how dare a woman have power?
I’m not saying it’s okay for anyone to degrade someone else, or to take advantage of their privilege at the expense of other people. But there’s no equivalent term to Karen for white men. White men use and abuse their power and privilege all the time. Let’s face it; that’s ALL a lot of white men do. It’s expected. But nobody thinks twice about it so of course we’re not going to invent a way to mock them for it, or turn them into a meme or a stereotype.
But we should.
I once said as much to my husband, and he said that the male equivalent to Karen is Ken. I did a Google search and he’s right; though “Terry” and “Gregg” are other possibilities. But none have caught on in the way that “Karen” has. Call someone a “Ken” and maybe it stings a little, but only if they know what you’re talking about, which they probably won’t. And, while I hate to imply that having feminine qualities is somehow undesirable, the best way to insult a privileged, abusive white man is to attribute feminine qualities to him. Yeah. Call him a “Karen.” He’ll hate it.
So, which high profile white men are most deserving of being called a “Karen”? They’re the ones who get off on diminishing women. Here is an incomplete list:
Calling someone a Karen is an effective way of belittling a person who seeks to belittle others. Confining this sling to merely women has been the point all along, but it’s time to open things up and be equal opportunity. Guys can be Karens too.
Normally over Winter Break, my big "me-time" outing would be going to a movie by myself in the afternoon, seeing something that neither Rich nor the kids would want to see, and which I would thoroughly enjoy partly because it's such an indulgence, to sit alone in a movie theater in the middle of the afternoon. However, that was obviously not happening this winter break, so I had to find a new way to indulge myself.
The solution was to lose myself while following the recipe for a sausage-apple pie from Amy Traverso's "Apple Lover's Cookbook", which was a Christmas present from my mom. The cookbook promised an hour of prep-time, but I spent over two hours putting the whole thing together.
That's okay, because the other part of the indulgence was to have on "Working Girl" - the 1980s classic, while I baked. This was one of my favorite movies back when it first came out, and while it's still charming, I don't know that it's aged well into the #MeToo era. I mean, Melanie Griffith is harassed and objectified, yet her main enemy is the only female she encounters who happens to have any power. Meanwhile, she Griffith get ahead because Harrison Ford finds her attractive and the other guy, Trask, finds her plucky. Plus, there are a lot of gratuitous shots of Griffith in her underwear.
Yet, I still found myself rooting for Melanie Griffith and singing along to Carly Simon's "Let the River Run" and laughing at the film's many funny moments, most of which include Joan Cusak. And perhaps this means I'm truly middle-aged (though I have been for a long time) but the comfort of revisiting a film from my youth while creating something homey, authentic, and delicious, brought me a happy kind of peace that I don't often feel in this day & age.
And the pie was DELICIOUS!
View from above - Crust & Sausage with a few apples peeking out.
Fresh out of the oven!
Constructing the pie - the apples were supposed to have the skin left on!
A little over four years ago, I promised Pauline, my daughter who was six at the time, that we would soon have our first female president.
Then, that damn New York Times election needle that kept moving in the wrong direction. I had a sleepless night and had to break it to Pauline the next morning that Trump would be our next president.
I went to school and saw the scared, deer-in-headlights expressions on my students’ faces. They were sure that they and their families would be deported soon. One of my favorite students literally rushed into my arms and cried on my shoulder. Later that day, I cried myself. It was during my fourth hour, reading a story to my Creative Writing class that had nothing to do with politics. A man who has regrets, who has made mistakes and who feels lost describes a dream he has: “I was running around that floor from one face of the skyscraper to another, frantic, looking through those big sheets of glass – trying to find a way to protect Superman.” (Coupland, Life After God 89)
I tend to choke up anyway, when I’m reading aloud writing that is powerful and so, so good. But that day, I felt that I couldn’t protect anyone from what was coming, and those words were a trigger. I wept.
“Ms. Osterkamp, who’d you vote for?” One of my students dryly asked.
We laughed and the moment passed.
Months later, I attended the Women’s March in Minneapolis. Three days later, I fell on the ice and shattered my elbow. I would need surgery. In the ambulance, the medic asked me the basic questions. “What is your full name?” and “What day is it?” and “Who is the president?”
I started to say “Obama,” but the realization hit halfway through, and it came out as, “O…My GOD!”
The medic shook his head and said, sympathetically, “Yeah.”
Physical therapy and the Russian probe followed.
My elbow healed but will never bend like it used to. The metal plate the surgeon inserted will always cause my arm to ache. And Mueller wasn’t nearly aggressive enough. And Robert Barr should be ashamed.
Then there was the Stoneman Douglas school shooting. I chaperoned students who wanted to protest at the capitol, and planned to bring with me my son, Eli, who was in middle school at the time. Pauline was upset, wanting to go too. “I want to do what’s right,” she said.
Months later, I picked her up at school, and she told me she’d learned about Abraham Lincoln. “I want to be like him,” she said. “I want to make the world a better place. When I grow up, I’m going to be mayor.”
Months and years passed. Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed. AOC was elected. Trump was impeached over his dealings with the Ukraine, and Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi were my temporary heroes.
Pauline had four birthdays. She grew, she formed opinions, and she still plans to be mayor. When George Floyd was murdered in our city, she cried, and helped me write letters to our elected officials and select which social justice causes we should donate to.
Covid 19 kept us isolated. Trump insisted it was a hoax, or that if we just drank some bleach, it would all go away.
“Vote like your life depends on it, because it does!” That was not hyperbole.
Everyday, I grew sure. We would be doomed if Trump was elected again.
Pauline and I would go for walks in the afternoon and look at all the yard signs. They were all for Biden & Harris, with a few RGB memorials thrown in. “What will we do if Trump wins again, Mom?”
“We’ll turn off the news,” I replied.
“We could just build a protective bubble around our house,” she added.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Trump isn’t going to win.”
On election night Florida goes fast for Trump. I have a sinking feeling I will need to tell Pauline I was wrong, again. I warn her when I put her to bed. She seems unfazed.
Then, thank God, Wisconsin and Michigan go for Biden the next day.
Pauline and I ride our bikes through the neighborhood, looking at the yard signs for what might be the last time. Biden and Harris.
“Do you know what we’ll have if Biden wins?” I ask her.
I laugh. “Sure, we can have cake. But I was going to say, we’ll have a woman vice president.”
I am glued to the television for the next three day and I look at Twitter so much I pinch a nerve. I am still in pain.
But by Friday we’re making our victory cake. It falls apart when it comes out of the pan, but the next day when the election is finally called for Biden. Pauline and I scoop the broken cake together and paste it up with sweet, buttery frosting.
We eat it while watching Harris speak. She says that little girls should know they can grow up to be whatever they want to be.
Pauline squeezes my hand.
I’ve never been the type to carefully read instructions. I don’t have the patience. Or, maybe it’s more like most of the time, I don’t understand. I’m not a visual, step by step sort of person. I’ll just assume I know what I’m doing enough to figure it out, that through some combination of instinct, common sense and magic, everything will come together.
That strategy worked in the Before-Times, back when there was room for human error because there had also been room for human interaction, because massive human error hadn’t all but eliminated human interaction. But I realize there’s nothing to gain from dreaming about BEFORE. I wish I’d known several months ago that everything was about to change, that I should prepare and I should say goodbye to sitting in bars and drinking G&Ts with friends, to my niece’s pink princess-drenched birthday parties, to travelling for work and staying in a Holiday Inn Express, and to impulsive shopping trips – braving the stores when they are crowded just so I could find the perfect sparkly top to wear on my date with the guy I met on Tinder. Speaking of which, I for sure have to say goodbye to dates with guys I met on Tinder, and to dates, period. Anything that might cause those tiny droplets to spread is a no-no, and I’m left wondering, is there anything worthwhile left?
The loneliness is what gets me now. Alone in my apartment, I’ll only leave by descending the fire escape stairwell, trying to hold my breath and trying not to touch the handrail the whole way down. Coming home is worse, having to climb fourteen flights of stairs, praying I don’t encounter anyone on my long trek up, and that if I do, that person doesn’t cough or sneeze on me, and please God, let them be wearing a mask.
I rarely leave anymore, but it’s not like I’ve given up. I ordered a treadmill with this screen that simulates beach scenes, so it’s almost like I’m running along the ocean waves. I have my food delivered, salads with goat cheese and walnuts, or Asian noodles steaming in the carton. I subscribe to all the streaming services, so I can watch the latest Netflix show everyone is talking about online, and I have a Kindle, so I can read any book I want with one-click ordering. And of course, there’s social media. I can keep up with old friends from high school or college, or with all my co-workers who also now work from home.
But despite it all, I am so alone. I can’t remember the last time I touched someone, or when someone touched me.
I thought about getting a pet; my building allows cats. But every single person has the same idea. The humane society is out of animals, and so are all the pet stores. Even if they weren’t, it’s not like you can have a conversation with a cat. Well, at any rate, I don’t want to be the type of person who would have a conversation with a cat.
I know what you’re thinking: how is it any better, to have a conversation with an AI than with a cat? It’s not. Just so you know, I don’t claim to be any better than a lonely, crazy cat lady. We all have needs and I was simply trying to get mine met. So when I saw the ad, it seemed too good to be true. You Can Still Belong to Someone! Find the Love You Deserve! Open your Eyes to a Better Mate, a Better Life, a Better World!
The AIs weren’t cheap. But I’d recently inherited some money, after my grandmother had passed. When she died, she’d been alone in the hospital and we couldn’t visit her because of contamination, etc., so I couldn’t really process the fact that she was gone. Yet, my bank account increased around 300,000%, and why not spend it on something that might save me from diving head-first off an emotional cliff? After all, there was no end in sight. The goal post kept moving, and for all I knew, this was how things would be for a really long time. For all I knew, relationships were now extinct, an antiquated artifact we would talk about one day: Can you believe people did things this way? How strange…
So, I ordered myself a mate. The website said they were fully customizable. I needed to choose its physical characteristics upon ordering: height, weight, build, race, age-range, defining features. But the rest of it, the selecting of what would comprise his soul, that would be up to me. I just needed to read the instructions and follow a few, easy steps.
Yet, the instruction manual was like a high school biology textbook, the type of tomb that had weighed down my backpack, sending me to a chiropractor before I’d turned sixteen. It was not simply a few, easy steps. The steps were difficult and layered, not unlike the navigation of the real-life dating world, and the real-life pitfalls of finding a romantic partner.
The “Handling Precautions” alone were entirely overwhelming.
· This AI, while sturdy, is still a delicate machine. Do not subject it to excessive force or rough play.
· The AI is not waterproof and cannot be used underwater. If you accidentally immerse it in water, contact the AI Service Center immediately.
· Never leave the AI near a strong magnetic field such as an electric motor, nor near radio waves nor any appliance with a large antennae. Doing so could destroy your AI’s programming data.
· If your AI is suddenly brought in from the cold to a warm room, condensation may form on its internal parts. In such a case, it is necessary to open all external valves and let the AI dry and relieve itself of condensation, a process that could take as long as five hours.
· Do not touch your AIs electrical contacts with your bare hands. This could cause corroding.
Even though these warnings gave me tremendous pause, making me think that I might be getting in over my head, I didn’t package him up and return for a full refund. That’s partly because just getting him back in the box and taping everything up, and then getting him to the Post Office - all of that would have been a major headache. But mostly, I wasn’t able to give up on the dream of having the perfect companion. So what if he’s a little delicate? All relationships require work.
I was determined. I downloaded the app on my phone that would act as his control panel. I went through all the steps choosing vocal qualities (though it was easiest to simply use samples from James Franco movies) and I selected the personality traits that seemed obvious at the time. Good listener? Check. Empathetic? Check. Patient? Double Check. Slow to anger? Of course. Why would I want an AI with an attitude problem?
I wish now I hadn’t skipped over the page in the instruction book with this segment:
While it can be tempting to select purely mild-mannered qualities for your AI, keep in mind that without balance, a low-energy AI with reduced drive may result. We suggest you include what some might see as “flaws” when building your AI’s personality, otherwise, your experience may not feel authentic. When surveyed, most clients respond that being challenged by their AI from time to time lends to an authentic experience, making their relationship with their AI more human-like.
I’d made him perfect in every way. Perfect looks, perfect build, perfect mind. He sounded like James Franco and listened like a therapist. He did whatever I asked of him, and he never got mad, not even when I’d lose my patience, yell and swear at him, releasing my anger at the world onto his unsuspecting artificial existence.
“This sucks!” I would yell at him. “You aren’t even real! Tell me what I’m doing!”
He’d cock his head, his eyes crinkling with warmth. “I see you and I hear you. I love you. Tell me how you feel.”
“I feel like I should have held out for a cat, one who might pee on my furniture or accidentally scratch me, so when he’d purr and let me pet him, it would be like I’d won.”
I went back and read the whole instruction book, but not until after I’d already selected his “human” qualities. Turns out that once formed, AIs are incapable of change, and I realized that I am incapable of happiness if I’m not also feeling challenged.
Now, I keep his power off, and I got on the waitlist for a cat. My AI makes a great scratching post.
I'm a high school English teacher and novelist. I love boots, chocolate cake, cooking spicy food, running, and BOOKS! I live in Minneapolis with my husband Rich, son Eli, daughter Pauline, our kittens, and guinea pigs. This blog is about life, love, and all things literary. Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter!