Giving baby boomers a lift, with a dig Aging gracefully: Mary-Lou Weisman's humorous book of "firsts" exhorts middle-agers to look in the mirror and laugh, not panic.

January 24, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The funny thing is, Mary-Lou Weisman had no intention of cashing in on baby boomer angst when she conceived "My 'Middle-Aged' Baby Book: A Record of Milestones, Millstones and Gallstones" (Workman $12.95). It didn't even occur to her that boomers are crashing pell-mell into 50 and living to tell about it.

"I'm not that pragmatic," says the author, in Baltimore as part of an East Coast book tour. "I just had this idea."

The idea came to Ms. Weisman, as good ones do, in a collision of disparate thoughts. A friend had announced that she was going to the dentist for her "first root canal." Her pronouncement reminded Ms. Weisman of baby-book firsts: My first tooth. My first step. My first word.

Perhaps middle age is a developmental stage with its own "firsts," she thought. The notion appealed to her. And since Ms. Weisman's mother made only marginal notes about little Mary-Lou in her big sister's baby book, she decided it was time to write her own.

The book should make anyone who has ever turned 40 laugh out loud. And then reconsider that tummy tuck. Modeled after an infant's baby book with clever illustrations and fill-in-the-blank opportunities, Ms. Weisman turns baby boom narcissism on its alpha-hydroxied, highlighted, neuron-depleted head.

Consider selections from the book's Horoscope. If you are a Sagittarian, you are "charming, optimistic, easy-going, and affectionate and have a great sense of humor now that your serotonin levels have been chemically elevated. You are inordinately curious about and proud of everything that comes out of your body. Don't be afraid to ask the waiter to repeat the specials."

Ms. Weisman also makes light of yuppies' high-tech toys, their prostates and delusional belief that they can live forever, if only they get those 10K runs in every morning.

In sections such as "Teething," "Toilet Training" and "First Words," Ms. Weisman goes over the top, taking 40-something aches, pains and preoccupation with bodily functions to a hilariously infantile extreme.

"I love bodily functions," Ms. Weisman says. When she first turned the book in to Workman Publishing, it was heavy on natural resources. "Have you noticed there are two pages on sex and six pages on gas?" one middle-aged editor asked another middle-aged editor. A long silence ensued, as Ms. Weisman relates it. "Well, that's about right," the second editor said, finally.

At editors' request, however, the ratio of sex to gas is more equitable in the baby book's final version.

Ms. Weisman, a free-lance journalist who has contributed personal essays to the New York Times, Vogue, New Republic and other publications, has written more than a novelty gift item. In between revamped nursery rhymes, cherry pie charts and dental charts, she includes subversive essays in the "Modest Proposal" vein, which take on the boomers' infinite capacity for denial and failure to revel in the emotional advantages of middle age.

Like pot-bellied lemmings, boomers have bought into the notion of youth as a sacred generation to be venerated and imitated, she says. "Do you really want to starve yourself, make yourself sick, spend $20,000 to have your throat slit and tucked up between your ears?" Ms. Weisman asks.

She, by the way, is a fabulous 58, with a cloud of ginger-colored hair (it's natural), and a sleek physique. But like anyone who has seen 50 come and go, Ms. Weisman's face is crinkly with character lines, and her visage is rounded by what her husband Larry lovingly calls "extra face."

Ms. Weisman has learned to revel in middle and late-middle age. She says it has liberated her from unnecessary guilt and has provided a sense of entitlement. She recently scolded a middle-aged guest who refused to say whether he preferred a glass of red or white wine. "You're past the 'Whatever's open' stage of life," she snapped.

Other events in Ms. Weisman's life have contributed in surprising ways to her sense of humor about aging. In the early 1980s, her son Peter died at 15 of muscular dystrophy. The diary Ms. Weisman kept during that time became "Intensive Care," a chronicle published in 1982 of Mary-Lou and Larry Weisman's struggle to help Peter, and to remain together in the wake of his inevitable death.

"If Peter can live that life in a wheelchair with high spirit, curiosity and affection, and then can die the way he had to die, then we all better grow up," Ms. Weisman says. "And middle age is when you grow up. If he can die, I can die."

The Weismans' other son, Adam, is a lecturer at Harvard, with an abiding interest in feminist literature. That he shares her enthusiasm for women and their struggle for equality reassures Ms. Weisman that she succeeded as a working, thinking mom.

A Phi Beta Kappa student at Brandeis University who slid early into marriage, she took her first cues from the Good Housekeeping school of life before starting to write. Buoyed by the feminist movement herself, Ms. Weisman kept house, tended her ill son and wrote essays at night in an office in the back of her Connecticut home. And now, she is breaking the age barrier with a splendid baby boomer send-up.

"The older you get, the harder it is to be young," she says. "So let's drop it. Let's start a revolution. Let's go sane!"

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