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Going Gray by Anne Kreamer

There is what I consider an unofficial canon of popular aging literature. Writers and researchers who come to mind immediately include Robert. N. Butler, M.D. (who coined the term “ageism”), Betty Friedan, Erdman Palmore, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Helen M. Luke, Becca Levy, Simone de Beauvoir, William H. Thomas, M.D. and blogger David Wolfe.

Over the past 20 years and more, they have a produced a thoughtful, intelligent body of work that together well represents the subtitle of this blog – what it’s really like to get old. Their books don’t stay neatly on my shelves for long. I regularly use them as reference for this blog, re-read portions of them to refresh my memory and for the inspiration of their wisdom.

After decades of mostly ignoring elders the media, with the aging of the baby boomers, has jumped on a new growing-old bandwagon. Newspapers now assign a reporter to the “age beat”. New magazines and websites aimed at elders pop up every day. And book publishers are creating a new genre to appeal to increasing numbers of people older than 50.

This is all to the good and, in time, may produce some works to add to the unofficial canon. The recently published Going Gray by Anne Kreamer is not one of them.

I had high hopes for this book, particularly with its subtitle, “What I learned about beauty, sex, work, motherhood, authenticity and everything else that really matters”. Unfortunately, the answer is “not much” or, at least, not much that she passes on to the reader.

What I mostly learned from Ms. Kreamer, the thread that runs through every chapter, is that she has no friends who are not famous, wealthy or powerful. On nearly every page, she drops bold-faced names of screen writers, executives, actors and actresses. She appears never to have an ordinary working stiff friend and I suspect that if she had talked to a few of those instead of her glamorous friends, this would have been a more enlightening book.

And it is hard to take any of her research seriously when early on she mistakenly writes that the U.S. average life expectancy is “over 80.” It is 84 and 81 for women and men respectively IF they reach age 65. Overall, it is mid-seventies, an important distinction.

One chapter is devoted to Ms. Kreamer’s hands-on research to see if she can get picked up in a Manhattan bar with gray hair. She immediately undercuts the experiment by telling the two men she meets, within the first two minutes, that she’s writing a book about gray hair. So much for finding out what they really think.

After slogging through a chapter on the plight of aging actresses in Hollywood, it was a relief to read the only interesting chapter in the book - on employment and gray hair. Kreamer’s interview with executive recruiter, Ann Carlsen, is enlightening:

“Carlsen also confirmed that among her roughly one hundred employer clients, for whom she conducts more than one hundred fifty searches a year, there is not a single woman with gray hair…

Of course, Carlsen is speaking mostly of people at the VP and CXO level of corporate America, but it was disheartening to hear from her too that at age 49, Ms. Kreamer

“’…should be a consultant.’ In other words, according to Carlsen, I’m over.

“I asked her if she saw any basic differences in the kinds of candidates that different industries look for. ‘Across the board, more companies are targeting younger demos, so they are focusing on wanting to hire people whom they believe will think like the animal. This is happening in all disciplines at the VP level and above’ [said Ms. Carlsen].

“She said that ‘corporate fit’ is more important in hiring than actual skills. Clients won’t tell her straight out, of course, that one of her potential hires didn’t get a particular job because he or she was too old. ‘Instead, they’ll say that the person ‘wasn’t a good fit for the culture,’ or that the ‘person is overqualified.’”

Ms. Kreamer then disappointed again by buying into the lie that overqualified can mean just what it says. What company in its right mind would not hire someone with the skills and experience to do the job. Overqualified always means too old.

Ms. Kreamer has an uncanny ability to belie every useful thing she writes. After resisting the urge to throw this book across the room for 200 pages, I found a nugget of truth:

“My whole experience hasn’t been about letting my hair grow in its natural gray. It’s been about growing up and – pardon the touchy-feely cliché – continuing to evolve as a person.”

Even if she has not, throughout the entire book, been capable of establishing such a theme for readers, at least she has arrived at her own positive conclusion. Then she undercuts herself again:

“I have every intention of avoiding the frail, frightened, old-lady stereotype – to remain as fit and curious as possible.”

In asking myself why I so dislike this book – it’s not harmful, after all – I realized it contains not a whit of thoughtfulness about aging. With the subtitle (overstated, I know now, by magnitudes) I had expected the experience of going gray to be a metaphor for getting old in a culture that demands we remain youthful unto death. I wanted the insight into traversing a barrier between midlife and old age the subtitle promised.

Instead, I got a 2500-word magazine story padded out into a 50,000-word book. A waste of my time. You’ll get a much more enriching read from Ellen Lee’s guest blog, The (Not So) Graying of America, published here in August.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Travelinoma richly evokes childhood summer evenings at her grandparents' home in Almost Heaven.]

Comments

Argh! Is this woman for real? I learned that 'over-qualified' was a synonym for old years ago. I really 'loved' it when other employers say I hadn't enough experience. I'm still trying to figure out which I am.

As far as picking up men goes, who the hell cares about that? I taught my daughter that anyone can get a man if they set their standards low enough.

Ms. Kreamer has a nodding acquaintance with reality! I can get better information on the reality of aging here and its ramifications here in the Blogosphere than by reading her book. Then again, I live with those realities everyday.

I suggest that Ms. Kreamer grow up and take a reality check.

This is a dangerous book in that there are people out there who will take it seriously.

Ms. Kreamer sounds like a very superficial person.I'll bet she always was and always will be.

Her research (?) about picking men up in bars reminds me of an incident from years ago. While staying in a hotel my husband and I went downstairs to the lounge for a drink one night. A lone woman was sitting at the bar with her back to us. She was 'drop dead gorgeous' with a beautiful figure in her basic black dress and perfectly coiffed blond hair.
Then she turned around. Her face was a road map of wrinkles; the sad remnants of a once beautiful visage. I thought, "How pathetic." She was still trying to cling to what had been instead of growing old gracefully.

Good thoughts on the book which I have not seen.

I wonder if a book list like the movie list might be a good feature for Time Goes By. Knowing good books on these topics could be very helpful to those just starting into the process. I have one (maybe more, I am not at my home) that is mostly photos of aging women (I think from 50 on). True, many were celebrities but still it was an encouragement to me about natural aging-- a few women, even in that world, really do that. When I was researching menopause, I found good ones and not so good; but it would have been nice to see a list from those who had previously negotiated the road I was beginning. Books are a powerful tool to help us see alternatives.

One of my wife's biggest pet peeves is the makeovers where coloring hair is one of the first things done.

She is a brunette in the back of her head and gray in front.

She would love to color her hair but she is severely allergic to black dye.

If her hair turned gray like Streep's in the Prada movie, she would be there in a minute.

It's the years of waiting that is frustrating her.

I'm doing my best to add natural gray hair, but one man can only do so much.

Thanks for an interesting post.

I was given a lovely book of photographs by Joyce Tenneson entitled, "Wise Women, A Celebration of Their Insights, Courage and Beauty." Most of the women range in age from 60-over 100. Some are celebrities, others I would say ordinary women but seeing their photos, and reading their words, makes these women far from ordinary. One quote in particular stood out for me:

"I don't need a mirror to see how I look. Long ago, I realized the inner self is visible if you present yourself truthfully and authentically. I'm comfortable getting with getting older. I have lived a good life."

Words to live by...Marti

At 50 and grappling with the thought of not dyeing my hair any longer and what that would mean in terms of how I am perceived at my workplace, I had contemplated buying this book for inspiration. Just the fact that she name drops makes it appear so extremely superficial. Thanks for saving us the money!

Thanks for such a full review. I thought her article was clever, but I need go no further. I am currently reading Fountain of Age, which you mention above. Now there's substance.

There are some names I'd add to that 'unofficial canon'of yours Ronni. Like Theodore Roszak (America the Wise), Florida Scott-Maxwell (The Measure of my Days) and Zalman Schachter Shalomi (From Aging to Sage-ing).
(I'm far too modest to put myself on that list of course but if anyone dares to suggest Gail Sheehy than I darned well WILL, 'cos both my books on aging got much better reviews than hers).
I just got an email from Beacon Press offering me a review copy of Lillian Rubin's latest book 60 ON UP: The Truth about Aging in America which O Magazine has described as “a sharp, brazenly honest expose for the 78 million baby boomers who will grow old over the next two decades.” I haven't seen it myself yet (someone else is doing the review for me) but she's a seasoned writer on the topic so let's hope this is a better book than Kreamer's.
Thanks for saving me the bother of reviewing that one!

I was recently critized about being negative regarding some of my comments. Well, now I see everybody else is rather NEGATIVE about this particular post. Will they all get a warning e-mail also? In fact, I actually AGREE with most of what Anne Kreamer is saying in her Going Gray book. Being over qualified for a job and/or hiring someone just to FIT the corporate image is in vogue today like it or not.

Joe:

If you are referring to my email of the other day after deleting your comment, there was nothing about being negative. This is what I wrote:

"I have removed your comment from Time Goes By. Everyone is welcome to join the conversation, but not for the purpose of only promoting themselves, websites or businesses. Nor do I allow anyone to malign a 107-year-old for not starting a business."

Regarding my previous comment it had nothing to do with maligning anyone. The BASIC point was we as elders we must realize that relatively meaningless jobs such as Wal-Mart greeter or Barmaid for that matter should be re-focussed to more creative endeavours such as building your own business OR being a Seniorpreneur. I am trying to encourage a NEW Seniors movement and do not have a business yet. I am only in the RESEARCH phase of this project. The specific reference to a website is NOT mine but it is the LOCAL Seniors Online website.

Joe Wasylyk
Seniorpreneur

Read your book in two sittings. At 65 I now have silver hair that I've nurtured for about the past 10 years. Never have I had as much positive attention for my hair, and I love the lack of time and money it takes to maintain coloring. This book reminds me of the struggle I went through to get to where I am today, and I throughly enjoyed the read. I am surprised at all these snarky comments, I must say. You described the difficulty of swimming against the current beautifully.

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