Hot flashes are usually a private matter. Alison Teal shares hers.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Smith Class of 66 Fortieth Reunion
May 27, 2006

I was really flattered and not just a little surprised to be asked to give this speech tonight. You see, unlike the rest of you, I graduated from Smith only summa cum fortuna. My highest ambition was just to get in to Smith. At the time of graduation all I cared about was, well . . . graduating.

So, I’m really honored to be giving this speech.

I promised Merry -- since we were having a heavily political weekend – that I wouldn’t do any political comments or jokes -- fine with me -- the trouble with political jokes is that they so often get elected.

It’s terrific to be here this weekend with all of you. How often do you get to have dinner in a room full of people every one of whom has this profoundly important common thread? We’re all so different. We live in different places, we have different interests, different politics. Some are prosperous. Some have committed their lives to teaching, government, art, community service or family. A few of you are gourmet cooks while others eat nothing but roots and clouds. Some of you are really famous while others have preserved our precious anonymity. But with all of our differences we have this very fundamental thing in common. We are all remarkably old. I mean it; if you’re sitting in this room tonight, you are probably pretty damn old.

I’m not sure when it happened, but I was shocked to wake up one morning and find that while I was asleep, I went completely out of style. It’s like I went to bed as Gwyneth Paltrow and woke up as Bea Arthur. But it’s not just the orthopedic shoes and sheer energy panty hose. It’s parts of my body I didn’t even know could go out-of-fashion. Have you been to a gym recently? How over the hill do you feel showering with all those Brazilian waxes? And then there’s the amount of time we have to spend to just get out of the house… I’m not even talking about liposuction or Botox. I’m talking about fundamental things like hair – all that washing and blow-drying, cutting, coloring. I swear if I hadn’t had to spend so much time on my hair, I could have found Osama ages ago. And the hair on my head is the least of it. It is in fact the least of it. It’s as if my hair follicles got bored over the years and now they’ve gotten together to try something new and more fun . . . like sprouting on my chin or a mole or just latching onto each other to form one really incredibly long eyebrow? Remember Tolstoy talking about that sexy downy lip on Princess Lise? But, of course she was young. No one talks about my fetching downy lip. I’m sick of all the maintenance -- the flossing, the moisturizing, the exercising and – my God – the dieting. I swear for forty years there’s been this thin person inside me screaming and screaming to get out. Fortunately through the years I’ve learned to give her cookies and alcohol and it shuts the bitch up.

The really frightening thing about middle age -- and the fact is we do all think of ourselves as middle-aged, don’t we? We’ve all bought right into the “sixty is the new forty” thing, right? -- well, then, the really frightening thing about middle age is that you know you’ll grow out of it.

What’s astonishing is that we even got to this advanced age. Think about it. It’s amazing we even survived our childhoods. We didn’t have seatbelts or smoke alarms. We never wore crash helmets. We walked to school. Our milk was fortified mostly with Bosco, or, in a few cases, with some nice strontium-ninety. We engaged in all sorts of unsupervised activities —they called it “playing” back then. We developed immunity to childhood diseases the old-fashioned way—by catching them. Putting fluoride in the water was thought to be a communist plot –at least in Omaha where we were ducking and covering under our protective wooden desks, which surprisingly were impervious to nuclear attack.

Our childhoods were difficult and exhausting in other ways of course. Once television finally came to Omaha, I think we only had 3 channels and certainly no remote controls. You had to actually get up and walk over to the TV if you wanted to change the channel – which probably accounts for those endless hours of watching talking horses and flying nuns. And dancing cigarettes. Remember those? Commercials had a lot of dancing and singing in those days. Our parents were killing themselves with tobacco and alcohol, but they were really happy about it. And no one had ever even heard of second-hand smoke.

And the stuff we ate! We ate chocolate soldiers and cereal “shot from guns”. We ate wax in the shape of big lips and that square bubble gum that came with baseball cards – not to forget those delicious candy cigarettes and bubble-gum cigars. And none of these treats had any limit on their shelf lives. We had actual sugar in our soft drinks. In the Midwest, mothers made sure we had something everyday from what one of my brothers insists were the four primary food groups: pasta, potatoes, cakes and pies. And here’s a memory you’ve suppressed, our mothers actually cooked with lard. As in the phrase, commonly heard when I was a girl, "We're out of lard."

And yet. . . we all arrived at Smith slim and fit – where many of us spent the first year in required calisthenic classes without ever even raising a sweat.

We’ve reminisced a lot this weekend about Smith in 1962 -- it was a land of curfews, doors six-inches-open-with-three-feet on the floor, special lates, and ironed sheets, along with big beef cheeseburger specials and Awful-Awfuls. Ah, but during our freshman year – and I swear, this is the truth -- Diet Rite and Tab were introduced and Weight Watchers was founded. Our class has always been forward-looking. I believe we were the originators of the freshman fifteen.

It was so long ago we wrote papers on machines that are now in museums. We spoke to friends and parents on phones that were attached to a wall and when you were speaking to someone “long-distance”, there was a hush of respect. Our tuition was $2,500 and we had six women of color in our class. We wore little red tunics. We were required to take Basic Motor Skills, which to my continuing astonishment had absolutely nothing to do with driving a car. Our stockings – when we weren’t wearing knee socks -- were held up by girdles with legs in them. We also wore wrap around madras skirts, circle pins, wheat jeans, and penny loafers . . . And if you were a really cool easterner like my freshman roommate Sue Stanley, you wore them without socks.

This last February I came back to Smith under the illusion that I would do some research for this speech. It turns out that since we were pre-internet, there’s hardly any record of our existence. So I walked around the campus for inspiration and revisited some of the great edifices of our day: Rahars, The Satire Room, and Carlos. Then I went to the archives and read through four years of the Sophian. I’m not kidding. It was totally fascinating. Unfortunately it was mostly about Yale – oh, there was a sprinkling of concerned editorials about the impending dissolution of fraternities at Williams, Dartmouth and Amherst. But there were some good stories. One of my favorites was about Hampshire House winning first prize on Freshman Day for a coffin mourning the loss of their friends Tom Collins and Old Granddad at Rahar’s. Another in 1965 said that Lyons Reading room was prepared to consider – only consider, mind you -- dismissing fines on books that were over an hour late due to the entire East coast Blackout. But my very favorite was a letter written in 1966 about our Rally Day Show which after praising the other shows of the other classes said: The seniors…gave a sour note to an otherwise enjoyable evening. I will not give examples of their plays on words centering around sex and made in very poor taste, those present will well remember them. It is ironic that in their closing song they spoke of setting a mark for their younger counterparts to look up to. Judging from the skit, I see no reason why anyone should look up to the senior class.” That was us. Always the cutting edge in one way or another.

We arrived at Smith with the Kennedy/Johnson administration in the midst of the Cuban Missile crisis. Johnny Carson was taking over the Tonight show, Marilyn Monroe had just died of a drug overdose and Jon Stewart had just been born. The Berlin Wall was a year old. John Glenn orbited the earth, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and Sylvia Plath committed suicide. And what were we doing? We were lining up like sheep having our posture pictures taken. I’m so glad that wasn’t on the program this weekend. What were we thinking?

But our time was at hand. We were avant-garde. We were in the forefront of the sexual revolution – which at the time was the world’s third greatest revolution after the agrarian and the industrial. Now, we are at least surviving the fourth greatest revolution – the informational – and once again in the vanguard of the fifth: the cosmetic surgical.

And not only that, but for our whole lives we’ve been the muses for the pharmaceutical industry. We began with right here with NoDoz. Then we paved the way with birth control pills followed shortly thereafter by fertility pills. We were the guinea pigs for diet pills, hormone replacement therapy and now . . . of course . . . sleeping pills and anti-depressants. If the drug companies made it, we ate it.

Over the last forty years we’ve experienced upheaval and protests, escalating poverty, war -- and that was just in our homes.

Like many of you, I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do after Smith. Personally, I fit the profile in “Where the Girls Are”, that lofty social guide to Eastern women’s colleges written and published by the staff of the Daily Princetonian. When describing Smith they wrote: The seniors . . . are easily recognizable as belonging to one of two categories: the smug, overly happy ones who are going to be married shortly after graduation; and the worried, nervous ones who haven’t even been pinned.”

This may have been right on target for a lot of us then, but let me tell you I googled each and every one of you -- Even accounting for your inflated resumes – and, come on, given that there are no records, who among us didn’t get 1600 on our college boards? –- You are a staggeringly impressive group of women. To paraphrase another Smith alumna, Gloria Steinem: you became the men we wanted to marry.

But I’m not sure the evidence is in that we’ve made our times that much better. We ended our four years here during the time of an unpopular President involved in an immensely unpopular war.

Around the time of our commencement, Art Buchwald warned a graduating class: "We're leaving you a perfect world. Don't screw it up."

I’m not sure how to tell you all this. I mean you may not be aware of it yet. But the fact is, we did. We screwed it up. And I’m not even sure we can glue it back together. Personally, when I broke the part I was responsible for – I may have lost some of the pieces.

A lot was expected of us when we left Smith. We not only carried all the baggage of the past -- obligations to family, friends and society -- but we felt an obligation to our newly emerging feminism. We were expected to be successful and productive as well as supportive and sexy; to forge new paths and break records and generally make it better for the women who would follow. That wasn’t a bad thing but it didn’t leave a lot of time – at least not for me – to figure out what I truly desired. Instead I was overwhelmed by the expectations of others – sometimes burdened because those expectations were actually too minimal. Well, as George Eliot said, "It is never too late to be what you might have been."

The point is, we still have time. We weren’t really the ones who broke that perfect world, but I believe we can help mend it. Okay, we’ve lost some of the pieces, but we’re the kind of people who can make new ones—now, at this advanced age, more than ever. We’ve had our successes; we’ve conquered a lot of our fears. We know that things can go from better to bitter in an instant, but we also know they can go from bitter to better. We have mature hearts now. They’ve been broken and beaten and torn apart by life. And it’s a good thing, because we can use that experience.

G. K. Chesterton said: “…the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged. God has kept that good wine until now.”

Our parents actually left us a better world than they inherited -- but then the world they inherited was a pretty crummy one. In some ways, we’ve had a harder job because we started with so much. What will future generations say about us? It’s not too late to affect the answer to that question. This is the time in our lives when we can afford to say “what if?”. It’s odd, but every defeat when you’re young seems like the end of the world. With age comes patience and hope. Now is the time we can really make a difference. All of us, not just those of you who already have.

I’ll end by telling you what I hope for us: that we
will prove that Dorothy L. Sayers was right when she said "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."

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