The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer discusses her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, shares her views on aging and offers insight on how certain women-related political issues will play out on the 2012 campaign trail.
Columnist-author Anna QuindlenOriginally aired on May 3, 2012
Tavis: Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and best-selling author whose many notable books include “Living Out Loud.” Her latest is called “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.” She joins us tonight from New York. Anna, good to have you on this program and congrats on the book.
Anna Quindlen: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: This back office, in many respects, is about aging, so let me ask. My grandmother didn’t like the word “old,” so let me ask, as you have become more chronologically gifted, (laughter) whether or not you think you’re doing this gracefully.
Quindlen: Well, I’d like to think I am, and I’d also like to think that we’re all having a lot more fun getting older than we pretend. It was interesting to me when I first started working on this book that I’d mentioned that I was writing a memoir about aging and everybody would moan and groan and carry on.
Then if I waited long enough and said, “Okay, so what you’re saying is you liked your life a lot better when you were 30?” everybody would get real quiet and then admit that that wasn’t the case, that they really felt like they were sort of growing into themselves in a way.
One of the interesting things I discovered, talking about your grandmother, is I did a search of my uses of the word “elderly” in my copy over the years, and you will not be surprised to hear that the older I got the less often I used the word elderly in print. (Laughter)
Tavis: That does not surprise me, although it is a funny anecdote. I’ve played this game with myself so many times, Anna, and I was anxious to get into your book because again, I’ve done this to myself countless times, which is to ask myself at which age, if I could go back, since we all seem to abhor getting older, I’ve asked myself many times if I could go back, at what age would I want to go back to and sort of stop there.
The answer that I’ve concluded every time I’ve asked myself that question is that my life now in so many ways – economically and politically and socially and in terms of relationships and maturity, this really is the best time of my life, but we never seem to process aging in that way. Why is that the case?
Quindlen: I am so glad to hear you say that, and I hope the whole audience is hearing you say that. I think there was a long period of time when we got real invested in a youth culture, and not coincidentally it was when the baby boomers, who let’s face it, take up a lot of space on the planet, were young.
Now the baby boomers, i.e., us, are getting older, and were suddenly discovering that there are great things about getting older. You have time for your friendships and you appreciate them in ways that you didn’t before.
Your kids are launched. You love your work but you understand how to place it in the panorama of the rest of your life. There’s this line in the book, and when I wrote it I thought yes, that’s it – if you think of life as a job, maybe by the time you get to, say, in my case, 60, you’ve finally gotten good at it.
Tavis: Yeah. But you have more years behind you now than you have in front of you, so what’s the value of finally getting this right, and you don’t have time to really work it out?
Quindlen: Yeah, but we’ve got more time – one of the things that got me on this topic for this book was that when I was researching the column I wrote in 2009 saying that I was stepping down from my column at “Newsweek” because I wanted to make room for newer, fresh voices out there, I discovered that in the year I was born, 1952, the average life expectancy of an American was 68.
I was shocked by that figure and every time I mention it I hear a gasp from somebody in the crowd. Now, of course, we’re more or less at 80, so that means that we’ve gotten 12 additional years.
If we really feel like we’re comfortable in our own skins now, we have a longer period of time to live out that kind of third or fourth act of our life.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there, because let me raise something that you talk around in a variety of ways in your text, but let me be more explicit about it.
So we’ve added those 12 years, since when you were born in 1952, and yet I could give you evidence and bits of data after data after data that suggests that just because we’re living longer doesn’t mean that life is getting easier, particularly now in this Great Recession and the impact that poverty is having on seniors, and all the talk of austerity.
So your thoughts on what it means to live longer, but not necessarily for many Americans live better.
Quindlen: You’re absolutely right, and frankly, I’m writing this memoir from the perspective of somebody who’s prosperous and has means. Having said that, one of the things that I think I discovered about those additional 12 years is that I don’t think they really are added to the end of life.
I think the last couple of years of life for many, many people are the same as they were 50, 60, 70 years ago. They could be really tough because of infirmity. But I do think that people who are now in their sixties and their seventies are living a different kind of life than their grandparents led, even in these tough times.
A lot of them are more active, a lot of them are still working, which was not the case when our grandparents were in their sixties.
Now, a lot of them are challenged by the fact that a record number of people in their sixties have living parents, and a record number of people in their sixties have kids who may still depend upon them.
So you’re getting squeezed at both sides. You’re taking care of your mom and dad and you’re still doing caregiving with your kids, which is not easy. But I think overall, there’s a level of satisfaction that might be unparalleled.
Tavis: To the point you’ve just made now about boomers who are taking care of aging parents, and we’ve never seen so many kids have to take care of their parents – I take that, and you talk about it in the text.
You lost your mother when you were 19, so you were not one of those now-60-year-olds who has the honor, the blessing, the pleasure of taking care of their parent in old age.
How have you processed your, again, becoming more chronologically gifted without your mother for so many of these years? You’ve now lived longer without your mom than you ever lived with her.
Quindlen: That’s absolutely true, sadly. My dad is still very much alive, and I’ve actually just had a run of a couple of months where he and I were handling some medical stuff together, which was indeed challenging.
But I think the gift of my mother’s death, if anything so terrible can be said to have an upside to it, is that I was always keenly aware that life was fleeting, and that you’d better live while you have the chance. As I say in the book, since I was 19 years old I felt like I was living for two, and when I out-lived my mother, when I got into my forties, it felt like a miracle to me.
That made me, I think, feel as though aging was a privilege, and I still feel that. People can talk all they want about the bum knee or the gray hair, and I can tell you unequivocally that my mother would have been happy to have a bum knee and gray hair if she’d gotten to hang out with her grandchildren.
Tavis: I want to turn to the back of the book and ask Jose to put this on the screen, this wonderful quote that comes from inside the text, of course, and I want to read it.
“It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was, then I didn’t know who I was, then I invented someone and became her, then I began to like what I’d invented, and finally, I was what I was again. It turned out I wasn’t alone in that particular progression.”
Tell me what the secret is to learning to be comfortable with the skin that you’re in.
Quindlen: I think a lot of people, but particularly a lot of women, get to this stage when I’d say they’re over 50. We face a lot of hard judgment from the world, we women. If you’re a full-time mother, you should be out working. If you’re out working, your kids must be being overlooked.
Your hair isn’t quite right and maybe you’re a size bigger than you should be and on and on and on. I think there comes a moment when you’ve matured to the point where you suddenly think, nonsense. I am fine just the way I am.
It’s an odd kind of feeling because it sort of reminds me of being five again. When you’re a five-year-old, you don’t pay any attention to what anyone thinks of you. You just sort of are in your skin.
I sort of feel like it comes around again. That when you get to a certain age, when you’ve lived enough and you’ve got your friends to support you and your family to support you, you wake up one morning and think, yeah, I’m okay.
Tavis: To your point about the push-back – my word, not yours – that women face in our society even today, your sense of what some have termed a war on women that we now see being waged. Whether you want to accept that nomenclature or not, it is true that there are battles that women are re-fighting now that I thought, you thought, I know, we had won a long time ago. What’s your sense of women in the world today?
Quindlen: Well, I do get a sense that there’s a huge disconnect between the political powers and what’s really happening, so right-wing conservatives can talk about contraception all they want, but the women of America are using birth control. It’s as simple as that.
If that weren’t the case, I’d have 14 kids by this time instead of just three of them. (Laughter) So I do think sometimes the political mechanism is completely disconnected from the people. However, what I will say is that history tells us that whenever things start to move too fast, whenever progress makes people feel a little breathless, one of the go-to spots that government, that the ruling powers that society goes to is to try to repress women.
It’s what the Taliban does in Afghanistan, it’s what gets done in the Middle East, and it’s clearly something that certain mainly conservative groups in the United States would like to do. They miss the good old days, when men were men and women were nothing.
The problem with freedom is that you just can’t go back. Once people see what it means to be free people, you can’t go back. So they’re going to keep nattering on about this and that, and maybe they’ll make another stab at de-funding the fabulous Planned Parenthood or something of the sort. To my mind, it’s just not going to work.
Tavis: How do you see, then, this issue, or these issues relative to women playing out on the campaign trail? Clearly, your readers and followers know and fans know that you’re an avowed liberal, and if Mr. Romney is, in fact, their presumptive nominee for his party, how do you see these issues playing out?
The dust-up about Ann Romney of days ago with Hilary Rosen, how do you see this playing out on the campaign trail?
Quindlen: Well, I think it was one of Romney’s chief advisers who said that after the primary season is over he’s going to “shake the Etch-A-Sketch” and start the clock running again.
If I had to guess what the new Etch-A-Sketch picture is going to be like, it’s going to be considerably less to the right. Romney has backed himself into a couple of corners that I don’t think will serve him well in the general election, the main one being very harsh stands on immigration, which I think are not only short-sighted but to my mind immoral.
I think he was trying to set himself up for a different sort of attitude towards women, even when he was asked one question about birth control and said sort of dismissively, “Well, of course nobody’s going to try to outlaw birth control.”
However, there will be a Republican Party platform that will coalesce around their convention. Unless I miss my guess, it will be considerably more conservative on these issues, perhaps even than Governor Romney is, and I think that that will give Americans a clear set of choices about all issues, but about women’s issues too.
Tavis: How’s the gender gap going to factor in?
Quindlen: The gender gap looks at this point like it’s going to favor the president, particularly among white suburban women. I certainly think it’s going to be an issue. But I think the single most important thing in this election will be turnout.
Can the president bring out the voters who were so enthusiastic about him in 2008 and seem a little disenchanted now? Can he bring out young people? Can he bring out Latinos? Can he bring out those white suburban moms?
On the other hand, I think that Governor Romney has to worry that his turnout is going to be low, that he is not going to bring out the evangelicals, that he is not going to bring out the Tea Party stalwarts. If he does not, then it’s pretty clear that he will lose the election. So I think turnout in key groups is going to be really, really key on Election Day.
Tavis: To your point now, Mr. Romney clearly has a problem with his conservative base, but Mr. Obama has a problem with his progressive base. So both of them have problems, if you will, at the margins of their parties.
I shouldn’t say – conservatives wouldn’t want to be considered at the margins, so let me rephrase.
Again, Obama has a problem with progressives, Romney has a problem with conservatives, I’ll leave it at that. The question, though, is with specific regard to Mr. Obama, since you’ve given us some sense of your take on Mr. Romney’s policies, how would you grade President Obama on women’s issues?
He started out really strong. Of course, the first thing he did, as we all know, was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter law. So women gave him very, very high marks for that. Prior to that he picked Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state.
So there’s some things that suggest he started out on the good foot, as James Brown might say. But how would you grade him in this first term on women’s issues?
Quindlen: Well, let’s not forget too that he put two stellar women on the United States Supreme Court.
Tavis: Supreme Court, fair enough.
Quindlen: I’m always keeping an eye on the court. Also, when the members of Congress came to his office during the budget debacle of a year and a half back and said, “We want to de-fund Planned Parenthood,” he said, “Not going to happen.” Those apparently were more or less his exact words.
I’ve got to tell you, I really appreciate that he drew that particular line in the sand. So I think he’s been good on women’s issues, I really do. If I were to fault the president, it would be for wasting what I think was substantial time trying to reach across the aisle, trying to reach bipartisan conclusions, with people who were not interested in policy, who were only interested in his personal destruction.
If he came up with compromises that they had spelled out, they changed what they wanted from him because all they wanted was to see him fall flat on his face. I think he wasted a lot of time with those people when he could have been going full speed ahead, particularly on the healthcare plan.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier, and one understands reading the text, because you talk about it, you have three kids. The president of late, they’re making a major, major push for young people, especially and particularly on college campuses.
Student loan debt, having said that, now exceeds, as you know, credit card debt. So what about the president and young people, and whether or not he can, in fact, inspire them this time around as he did the first time around?
Quindlen: Well, I hope he can. The unemployment rate among the young in the United States is still very disconcerting, although we all know it’s nowhere near as bad as it is in some of the European countries, where in some places it approaches 50 percent.
I know that it’s very dispiriting for people in their twenties, who expected to graduate from college, get their own apartments, get a job, and move forward with their lives, and in fact are still now living with Mom and Dad, which is challenging for all involved.
So the president’s really going to have to speak to some of those issues to galvanize those young people. I’m not sure that the Republicans offer much of an alternative for them. I just worry that in fact they might stay home on Election Day.
Tavis: In this book, I want to go back inside the book, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” the new memoir by Anna Quindlen, in the book you offer some advice to young people specifically, since you again, have three kids. One of them is to stop paying attention to people who want to smack you down, but on the other hand realize you don’t know very much.
Quindlen: I think actually I say you know nothing.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s true.
Quindlen: I’m remembering myself.
Tavis: I was trying to be charitable and generous to the young people.
Quindlen: I’m just remembering myself at 22 or 23. I was all engine and no steering. (Laughter) I had the wheels but I had no steering. I do think it’s true that when you’re younger, you’re more likely to listen to all the naysayers, and people are always telling you how you ought to behave and what kind of job you should get and how you should look.
A lot of times, those are people who aren’t particularly happy with how they behave or what kind of job they have or how they look. So I think that you have to listen to that interior voice.
At the same time that you’ve got to open yourself up to the fact that experience is going to teach you year after year, decade after decade. I remember I very badly wanted to write a newspaper column when I was only 21 years old, and I went to my editor and told him that, and he said, “You’re a really good writer, but you haven’t lived long enough to be qualified to live out loud.”
It was one of the smartest things anybody’s ever said to me because I can guarantee you if I’d written a column when I was 21, I would be apologizing for it today.
You realize that especially when you’re writing a book like this, looking back on your life, that there’s just such a depth of understanding you acquire over time with the help of the people who love you that that’s when you can really get down to what you really think and believe.
Tavis: I’m listening to you, Anna, and I’m trying to balance, trying to juxtapose the notion of young people not knowing much of anything or nothing at all with not foreclosing on their hopes and on their dreams and on their aspirations.
So back to your story, how did you have this editor, which is great advice, I love it, how did you navigate this editor telling you you haven’t done enough yet to live out loud with not having your hopes and dreams and aspirations feel crushed?
Quindlen: I’ll tell you the truth – I went to a women’s college, Barnard, the most selective college for women in America today. If there’s one thing I came out of Barnard with, because it was a women’s college and a great institution of higher education, it was fearlessness.
I sometimes think that courage is the thing that you need more than any other thing. It’s fear that cripples us. It’s fear that accounts for racism, it’s fear that accounts for sexism, for xenophobia.
I really feel like if you can get past your fear, if you can say, “Uh-uh, I’m afraid to do that and I’m going to do it anyhow,” that that’s really the way to have a satisfying life moving forward.
I think I had that kind of fearlessness even as a young person. It wasn’t tempered by experience or wisdom, but it took me a long way.
Tavis: You have a wonderful piece in the book where you talk about the fact, and I concur, that accidents determine so much of what happens in our lives. Tell me more.
Quindlen: Oh, it’s just really true. As I said, I had this fabulous college education. At college I met the man to whom I’ve been married for 34 years and who is the father of those three kids. I seriously considered going to another college, and my life would have been completely different in every way.
You realize that these accidental decisions you make about changing jobs, about moving into an apartment where you make new friends and confidants, about going to one city over another, that sometimes they’re completely arbitrary decisions that you haven’t put as much thought into as perhaps you should have, and yet they change the course of your whole life.
Tavis: You have in this book, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” your memoir, Anna, a wonderful chapter on faith. What’s fascinating for me about that chapter is it is a chapter on faith, but you basically acknowledge that you’re not devout.
Quindlen: Well, I’m not anymore. That was probably the hardest chapter in the book to write, and the saddest, in many ways, for me, because I was, I grew up in a very devout Catholic family. My husband is also Catholic. We’ve raised our kids in the church.
For many years, despite what I thought were really punitive decisions about women in the church, I stayed and stayed and stayed. I kept saying to myself, “The Catholic church is my church, and by God, I’m going to stay here, despite what the hierarchy does.”
Then after the recent events around the pedophilia scandals and the way the church responded or didn’t respond to those events, and the continued attacks on women, one day I just said to myself, “This far and no farther. I’m done.”
I stopped going to mass, and boy, it was painful for me, and it was certainly painful for my family, but I just couldn’t ratify their behavior and their decisions anymore by showing up on Sundays.
Tavis: I’ll let folk read more about it in the new book, but in the 45 seconds I have left – that is a fascinating chapter. In these last 45 seconds, though, one of the things I agree most within the book, you make it very clear that we will not in this country or anyplace else, we will not find salvation in stuff.
Quindlen: It’s absolutely true. Look at the shopping spree we went on during the ’90s, and now we’re looking at all that stuff on storage facilities and saying, “Why in the world did I buy this?
Tavis: If you know what a great writer Anna Quindlen is, you know that I’ve done no justice at all to what you will find in her new text. It’s called “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” a memoir, again, from one of the best writers the nation has ever known. Anna, good to have you on. Congrats on the book and thanks for your time.
Quindlen: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app now in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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