Single files 

On living and dating at midlife

A divorced friend tells me she tried online dating when she was 39. She got tons of e-mails, loads of dates. Then she turned 40 and updated her age in her online profile. She makes a chopping gesture to illustrate how the e-mails all but stopped. Here was a harsh and fascinating window into her new dating world, she says. Here was an unexpected lesson in marketing. Keep the tag at .99, she jokes; don't let those guys know you're 100.

A discouraging story? Kind of. Representative of just one person's experience? Certainly, yet rife with lessons about the unmarried life after 40; about the implications of age and gender in dating; about what an independent single woman wants from a man in midlife anyway; about why some of us get married once, or married thrice, or why any of us bothers getting married at all.

Editor Jane Ganahl's anthology, Single Woman of a Certain Age, gives life-and heart, and humor-to such questions through the voices of 29 unmarried women (including UM Associate Professor Judy Blunt and MFA graduate student Rachel Toor) over 40. Ganahl says she kept her writers' assignment simple: "Tell me a story about being single at midlife," she writes in her introduction.

And we're lucky she chose those words. Because telling a story is very different from publishing a journal entry, rehashing therapy-speak, taking revenge or waxing confessional-all potential pitfalls of relationship-based writing that this anthology almost completely sidesteps. Telling a story means finding a fresh and surprising way to craft a perhaps-familiar situation into a scenario that belongs only to the characters in that story. When an anthology asks 29 writers to tell their versions of more or less the same story, the book's overall success rides on the writers' ability to tell their same story differently.

With the exception of a few I am no longer willing to compromise and I need to learn to value myself lapses, these writers do. Rather than dish up war stories or shoptalk of life alone, they for the most part spin colorful tales that illustrate the warts and blessings both of flying solo in midlife. They flesh out that oft-referenced statistic-yes, according to the 2002 U.S. Census Bureau report, the divorce rate is pushing 50 percent for people now in their 40s-with stories that dismantle old-maid myths. Single women of a certain age are no meek minority; they're an accomplished, often enviable norm.

Not that anyone wants to be alone, their stories say. Just that there's more than one way to find love-and there's more than one kind of love to be found.

Take, for example, the story by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ms. Gonick, titled "Beaks Benedict," in which aiding her octogenarian parents on their daily walk to feed the neighbor's goats leads to falling for the first real man of her life, the rancher Mack, who's never heard of Shakespeare but invites them in for fresh eggs that, when cracked, spill blood and semi-formed beaks.

Or Toor, who likely goes where no woman has gone before when-after raising a mouse, a rat, a dog-she decides to co-parent a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Emma with her ex-boyfriend and discovers that pets, unlike people, don't disappoint.

There's also Joyce Maynard's pitch-perfect rendition of her date with a man who speaks only in Woodstock-era song lyrics; Australian author Liz Byrski's Hollywood-size fairy tale of receiving a phone call from the love of her life, who, after 37 years of silence, has tracked her down from the other side of the world to pick up where they left off.

And then there's Blunt's "Airborne." In an essay that, refreshingly, makes only glancing mention of its author's place among "the ranks of single moms," Blunt renders a deft account of taking her son Jason skydiving for his 18th birthday. "He might feel his bones shrink to fit a sparrow's skin," she imagines, listening to the plane from the ground. "He might hold out his arms and fill the sky."

These stories work because they are distinct, smart and unsentimental. Others in the collection succeed because they raise compelling issues surrounding single life.

When African-American author April Sinclair is passed on the street at night by two men and a drunk white woman who yells "Black Power!", Sinclair writes, "I believed that if I'd had a man or even a woman at my side I would've been less of a target." Sunny Singh, who has remained fiercely single as she's watched her married friends-once out to change the world-"[cross] the line to the status quo," worries that she might have found a man she wants to marry. But, she asks, "What if this begins my slide into the same dreadful, stable, prosperous suburban narrow-mindedness?"

Single Woman of a Certain Age gives you plenty to think about. In moments, it makes you plant a mental note never to admit being "in a good space," or singing along to Sheryl Crow, or letting your daughter tell you to "Go, girl." But more than that, these stories make you consider your own role in our culture that loves youth, in which single women arguably still age into spinsters while single men remain bachelors. These 29 women's accounts-some irreverent, some inspiring, some gut-wrenching-make you wonder how gracefully you might weather your own marriage, or decision not to marry, or, as contributor Cameron Tuttle notes, the discovery that your sagging boobs can hold business cards beneath them.

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