Writer and actress Annabelle Gurwitch has documented for posterity the kinds of humiliations of middle age that are usually whispered in the backrooms of hair salons. It is easy to love her for it. In her book of essays, "I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50," Gurwitch is imminently relatable. With a sharp wit and buoyant honesty, she describes the torture of going through menopause as her son goes through puberty, the pain of taking part in a good friend’s assisted suicide, and her initial joy upon fantasizing about a lusty rendezvous with a sweet and alien millennial employee at the Apple Store’s genius bar.
Even her marriage is fair game. “There are things in life that are really best experienced alone,” she writes. “Using a toothpick, sex, and longtime marriage are often most satisfying when you are separated from others by many miles.” And that’s the tamest part.
We caught up with Gurwitch from her “Hollywood adjacent” Los Feliz home, just before she headed off to sing (badly, according to her) with her nondenominational choir.
The first essay in the book is about visiting the “genius bar.” A lot of people have the same reaction as you, that it’s this magical realm with all these good-looking young people. And there’s all this youth and promise and yet it’s all kind of a construct. I’m wondering, how do you think, in general, we’re dealing with technology? I mean, our generation, people in middle age, we’re used to technology, but we’re so aware of what we’ve lost because of it.
Yeah, you know, it’s so funny. There’s always early adopters. My dad makes fun of my BlackBerry. He’s like super adopter; he’s so into tech and it’s so funny because that’s not the norm. But I do think we are in this transitional generation and it is this crazy thing where I feel we’re old enough to have this nostalgia. I do feel there is something lost and something gained. And let me just say, I don’t know how Joni Mitchell wrote the lyrics ‘there’s something lost and something gained in living every day’ when she was 23! It’s taken me until 52 to understand that!
But I feel nostalgia for things like the kind of anticipation that I felt not knowing if that boy I had a crush on was going to call or not call. Did I miss his phone call rushing home? Sitting by the phone; the wondering, the waiting; not being connected every minute and how many dates did I go on? And I still enjoy the process of trying to remember that actor’s name from that sitcom that I can’t remember. And these kinds of things that technology has made so easy for us; it’s so facile that I think it’s taken away some of our creativity, some of our associative memory, some of our ability to share with actual people, when we’re in a nonvirtual situation, that kind of conversation and exchange of ideas that Google has put at our fingertips.
And by the by the way, I want to make a note that I just said, "Let’s Google it," but no one on the planet is saying, "Let’s Bing it"; can we just say that didn’t work out! That’s one thing that nobody’s going to be nostalgic for. Never caught on ... So that is a daily thing that I feel is a kind of loss. The other day, actually a couple of months ago, I started this thing where I call my friends. For a little while, I stopped calling my friends. You know, we’re emailing and texting and then I realized I hadn’t heard the sound of my friend Michelle’s voice and I was nervous about calling her. The first thing I said was, there’s nothing wrong, there’s no emergency, because people feel that when you call it’s an emergency — that is a loss I feel; I feel that acutely, that sense of isolation.
There was a study done at NYU with kids in the dorm -- I went to NYU so this reference meant a lot to me -- that they had a thing where they told everyone to come downstairs to meet and socialize and they didn’t get as good a response as when they met virtually online. And that was sort of a self-selecting community. This next generation, they’re called millennial, but someone else coined the term "the Shallows" [which] I think is much more apt. [The fact that] they felt much more comfortable meeting online, that to me is frightening. They’ve linked this with a lessening of empathy and I really do feel this is one of these losses that we are witness to at this age and I’m trying to capture that in the book as well.
So that story about going into the Genius Bar, you’re instantly in that environment where I feel I am markedly of a different generation. People are standing next to each other talking on their devices, not actually to each other. That was one of those moments. The book is constructed, in a way, [through] each essay, to me; I was looking to represent a different aspect of a moment of recognition of this age. So each story serves to point these things out. So that [essay about the Genius Bar] was a complete clash of cultures between that age and this age. And the funny thing about this book is that when I started writing it, I didn’t know where I was heading. It was a collection of essays, these different stories that I’d been writing, and it wasn’t until I had about four of them that I realized, oh, this is a book about recognizing these moments when you realize, like a midlife crisis moment, things have changed. I didn’t intend that, but all of a sudden, after I had about four of the essays … And it was the story about how invisible I was at this age at the concert with my son. That was, I think, the first one that I wrote.
And then there was the one about getting caught in the vortex of anti-aging products at the store and realizing what a target I was, how vulnerable I was at this age to this crap. And then there was the story about the geniuses idea and how would I connect with someone on a sexual level who was of a different generation. That all became a portrait of a person at this age and I said, oh, that’s what I’m writing! It just didn’t occur to me at first.
Yeah, and one of the realizations that you come to, that I think a lot of people our age are coming to, is that 50 used to mean it’s almost over or should have been over. [But] for a lot of us, we’re at the midpoint mark, if we’re lucky, and we’ve got a long time to be considered "old." I think you wrote about that, what does it mean anymore?
Right, this is where I think we are in this transitional generation. And there has been this term that refers to a certain aspect of this, which is the "sandwich generation," and that is byproduct of feminism, in part, because it particularly impacts women [as we’re] having children later; you have kids at home while you are hitting a certain age. For me, I have teenager at home while I‘m also dealing just with the biology of turning 50.
Now I’m 52 and my son went through puberty while I was going through menopause. And that’s a really different thing. My mother was a grandmother at this age. I didn’t see my mother go through this, I was out of college, my sister had kids … So we’re doing things at a different time and yet we have potentially this time ahead of us, whereas earlier generations did not have that. So it is this strange moment where we don’t know what we’re headed toward. We’re headed toward a potentially longer time, yet there’s still biology that defines us. For instance, when you say this thing like "40 is the new 30" or "50 is the new 40," one of the themes of the book is that it actually is not — "50 is the new 50," we just don’t know what that means. For instance, at this age, I am no longer fertile; that’s just biology. That’s not our culture. Biology and our culture are evolving at different levels; I may have all this time in front of me, but there’s still this finality. Now I didn’t realize that was going to be an issue for me; it wasn’t like I wanted to have more kids necessarily. It was just the finality of not being able to. That’s real. That’s not neurotic; it’s just a real thing that one has to deal with. Of course that could be a relief to you, that could be a mourning, but I feel that is a real benchmark.
It’s a mistake to not be the age that you are, whatever that means, however we define that in a new way, that you miss something by not acknowledging that. That’s where I think we’re really in this transition. Plus, on top of that, if that weren’t enough agita for us to deal with, there’s this other social change, that if we are living longer then potentially the age of retirement, that next transition is going to be later.
Really, how we look is the least of it, although how we look at this age is also very much determined by our social status, by our money. Because, you know, you can just look at someone’s bank account and you can see why some people look a certain way. Because it’s all a matter of all these things that you have advantages for. So in a way, it’s almost worse, actually, when Elle Macpherson is turning 50, and looks like Elle Macpherson --
And you’re a failure because you don’t look like her, because you can’t afford all her treatments --
Right, but it’s a completely … It’s a ridiculous thing to compare yourself because she’s got all these advantages that the rest of us mere mortals don’t have. When you don’t even include the fact that she started out as Elle Macpherson. She was already this thing. But I think it adds to a lot of confusion for the rest of us, and a lot of agita, a lot of uncomfortableness of, how are we supposed to be? And so, you know, those are the things I am addressing comedically, hopefully, in the book. Otherwise, it’s just a cautionary tale. But I think that all of us at this particular transitional generation are sort of like, what? How are we, what are we supposed to be doing? What are we supposed to feel like or look like? How does this impact us?
Without being a memoir, in this book, I do try to draw comparisons to my grandmother and my own mother. And they just had very different lives, and so, in our lifespan we are seeing this really changed, this age.
And one thing I was thinking about, when you were saying about how we were going to be working for a long time. But our bodies have been working for a long time, and there are so many experts that are constantly telling us what we need to do to fix them, and to keep our brains together, and, you know, we’re supposed to be learning Italian, we’re supposed to be hanging out with friends all the time. How do you have time to keep it up?
Right, that’s why the title of the book is, “I see you made an effort.” It takes so much effort at this age to do everything! I mean, there’s all the things you’re supposed to do … there’s the amount of exercise you’re supposed to be getting for a woman at this age, there’s the supplements, there’s the sleep, the brain exercises, uh, you know, sudoku; OK, I look at sudoku, it’s supposed to be really good for your brain, it just makes me think, “I’m headed towards Alzheimer’s.” I never understood sudoku when I was younger, I don’t understand it now; if you’re telling me that’s what I have to do, it’s all over. “Square dancing has been shown to …” Really? What? How am I going to schedule it into … I’m a freelancer, I also have to get a job. It’s just unbelievable. Plus, because I had kids later, I have a kid at home, just when am I supposed to do all this stuff? I never did my Kegels! I’m still working on the post-birth Kegels thing. I’m like 16 years behind on my Kegels and now I’m supposed to be doing brain exercises. When? When will I possibly do all this.
But OK, I did do a couple of things. I did join a choir. Now this just cracks me up because that’s one of those things that’s really good for your brain health. I was like, well, how am I going to join a choir, I’m an atheist and I have a terrible voice. So I did find this choir in Los Angeles, of course this is in Los Angeles; I hope people in other places can find this too. I found a nondenominational, non-audition choir, and we sing traditional Zulu songs. Which is just fantastic because also, I’m learning another language at the same time. And I stand in the back, and I sing terribly, and it does make my brain really, really happy. So I’m hoping that will count toward something. Of course I’ve been so busy, I’ve missed choir for the past two weeks.
Don’t forget your face exercises, too. Cause I keep hearing that we’re supposed to be doing that also.
Oh, you know, I don’t even know about that. I’m going to have to start Googling that. The last story in the book is about how, at this age, these genetic predispositions can catch up to you, and this is just one of those things that is just a reality of biology. So that story is about putting together my son’s trampoline. We have this big trampoline in the backyard, and it activated, apparently, a predisposition I have for osteoarthritis in my hands and I go to see this rheumatologist. Now, first of all, calling to see a rheumatologist is not something you fantasized about ever as a younger person, and he said to me, “Oh, yeah. We just call that Old Lady Hands.”
I thought, “Oh my god. I’m gonna take my Old Lady Hands, put them around his neck and strangle him.”
It seems that working in Hollywood has amplified so many of these issues for you. You’re experiencing what a lot of women experience, but it’s all magnified; the age issue just becomes much more harsh in that world.
That is the perspective I try to write about in the book; it’s sort of like being an alien, walking into that, you just feel -- you feel the difference. So, actually, I’m not sure if I left that detail in the book at this point. So when I go into, there’s a story about going to, basically, going into this beautiful five-star hotel, where I have volunteered my services to be an emcee at a charity event. Something I really believe in, it’s the National Wildlife Federation, and there’s a crazy culture clash, where I’m volunteering my services (and this kind of thing happens all the time, and I’m not saying this begrudgingly, but this is just sort of a normal thing). They asked me to volunteer my services, so I’m not being paid to help them raise money at this event, at this hotel where everyone’s dress costs more than I make in a year.
So I show up and it’s not like they give me clothes to wear; I’ve got to try to look, you know, respectable in front of these people. I’m wearing shoes that were bought for me during a job that I did years ago, that are being held together with Super Glue. And I’m hoping that the sole of the shoe isn’t going to start flapping as I walk across the stage.
And you just think, “This is nuts. This is crazy.” This is just one of those crazy moments. And then I found myself pathologically compelled to steal every product that wasn’t nailed down in the hotel room, in the bathroom, and then call down for more. This is what happens when you grow up without money. I hoard hotel products when people send me to places and I go to places, because I’m afraid I won’t have money. If I’m living longer, I’m going to need more body wash.
There’s a book that really affected me, which was David Denby’s book “American Sucker.” I read that a few years ago, and it really blew me away. Because in that book he writes about living in Manhattan, reaching middle age and going to people’s vacation homes in the Hamptons and realizing he was never going to have one of those homes. I mean, look, things can change, but he had to sort of accept at some point in his life that he wasn’t going to necessarily own one of those homes, and that he was a visitor in people who were his same age or younger’s homes. And that’s a realization that hit me at this age, that I felt it was really important to make my peace with.
You write about your friend’s death from pancreatic cancer. I’m wondering if you could describe how experiencing that, and helping her go through that, changed your perspective on being at this stage in your life?
Well, there’s a number of things that that story is about. And one of those things is about community, and this notion of voluntary kin. And I didn’t write about that in particular; I mean, what that whole experience did for me was, it made me realize how important it is, the investment we make in the community of people we go through our life with. Because we live in a society now where we don’t all live near family, we live in clusters of friendships, and the responsibility that that requires. And that is another one of these age-related things where, when you’re younger and these things happen, someone gets sick -- those of us in the theatrical community we had Jenifer Estess, that was a big thing. We were in our late 20s, early 30s, I can’t remember exactly now, but that was an anomaly; now it's becoming more of a common thing for us. And I have a friend now with two brain tumors.
And so friends all gather, we bring them a meal. That whole experience made me feel how important it is that -- it’s another one of those things we have to do at this age. Of course, this is a voluntary thing, but to invest in our friendships, how important that is. And how important it is to create supportive communities.
Because there is less time. I mean, I think that is just one of those realities of just how time in your 20s ... and that was actually something, in any writing there’s fictionalization, but in the first story, the “Autumn Leaves” story, when the Apple genius says, “I should go to Norway, try out a career in Norway.” And I say to him, “Oh, you should do that, because if it doesn’t work out, you can always file that under ‘things I did in my 20s.’” When you’re in your 20s, for the most part, for many people, you can have the luxury of making mistakes. If you’re lucky enough to, you have those things that you try out as you try to find yourself. In your 50s, there is less time!
So what that can do for you, besides depress you, is, it does give me energy. You know, after you go through that, “Oh my god, this is horrible!” It gives me energy to say, I’m going to make that extra effort. So, since I had that experience of assisted suicide, I do try to fight inertia, so sure I drink more coffee, which really isn’t good, I should really be drinking more green drinks, but I feel like coffee is all I have left.
Can you just very quickly riff on one of the best things about being middle-aged?
Well. As I just laugh for a moment. Well, so my friendships with women are just so great and important and so fucking fantastic and that is just a huge source of happiness for me, going through this with my friends. I have to say that, some of that is due to Facebook. It has allowed me to reconnect with people I grew up with, and go and see them. And I’m not saying I write books so I that I can go on a book tour and visit everyone I went to high-school with, but that has been one of the byproducts and so fantastic. That, you know, going through this with other people is really great. That is a good thing about middle age. This other thing about not postponing joy and even challenges, that is something; I mean, I didn’t do certain things when I was younger because I just thought I had more time and that expiration date has really motivated me.
While I’m still ambulatory, I am going to make the most of it. It is also -- OK, this has been the really biggest thing for me of all, though -- for me, this moment has inspired me to let go of certain perfectionisms that I felt were really limiting for me. So I will do things now that I am terrible at, that I can now allow myself to do. Like singing in the choir. I know I can’t sing, but it’s so much fun for me. And in the past it would have bothered me.
I play tennis. It’s my favorite exercise now. I’m not good at it. I don’t care anymore. Sure, I might hit balls into other people’s courts. Maybe it’s not so good for them. But I have used this moment to get past this and to challenge myself. The minute I finished the book, I wished I could write it all over again and improve it, and I try to make my peace with that every day, because again, I feel like in the past that perfectionism would prevent me from putting something out there because I know it could be better. I’m just living with that now, in a better way.
I’m not good at cooking, I’m not the best actress in the world, I’m not the best writer in the world, I’m not the best mother in the world, I’m not the best daughter in the world, I’m not the most philanthropic person. But you know, I’m doing it anyway and my new motto is, “You can’t have it all, but you can have it some.”
You know, I’m having people introduce me now as “Annabelle Gurwitch -- still here.” And you know, I’m more comfortable, and I don’t want to sound cliché but by sort of accepting these limitations it is a better daily experience for me and that is something; God, if you can do that when you’re younger, great. Don’t wait like me until you’re this age, but if you’ve waited, or if it hasn’t happened for you yet, use this moment as a wake-up call, because for me, because of all the things that have happened in these stories, that’s what it’s been for me … this lessening your perfectionism, this greater acceptance, it has daily reverberations. It’s not just an idea like, “Oh, I accept myself more.”
It actually lets me do more things that I can fail at. It helps me to deal with all my failures in a better way.