There is something all women have in common. Every single one of us, we can all look back on our lives and say, “What the hell was I thinking?!?” A lot of these “what the hells” have to do with unbelievably ridiculous romantic choices that seemed reasonable at the time but completely insane now. With 20/20 hindsight, the red flags are obvious, our blind denial seems pathetic, and the “Ew!” factor could make bile rise if we thought about it too long. But putting aside yesterday’s cringeworthy interpersonal activities, there are less Sliding Doors-type decisions we wish we could change. If I had access to a time machine, there are plenty of non-life-altering things I’d do differently. Taking big stuff like relationships and jobs off the list, what would I do – or not do – if I had it to do all over again?
Back in the day, dumbass white girls like myself sat in the sun for hours, slathered in baby oil, reading The Other Side of Midnight as we turned over every now and then to make sure every inch of skin had a chance to one day grow cancerous cells. I’m from Florida, and all year round my friends, relatives and I spent most weekends baking ourselves to a crisp. Sunscreen was for sissies. Intent on being as tan as possible for my first day of college, I actually entered the world of higher learning with first-degree burns. I met more than one fellow freshman when they inquired, “Are you alright?”
In my 30s and 40s I took up running. Four days a week I’d run around Central Park once or twice. (That’s 6 – 12 miles.) Did I ever stretch? Nah. Did I ever wear sunscreen? Nah. (When you’re young you often have this feeling that you’re invincible.) I’ve also never really been one to think ahead. If my knees don’t hurt now then they’ll never hurt. If my skin looks golden and spotless now, it will always look like this. Well, my now speckled décolletage says different. My shortsighted stupidity means I have all kinds of spots that I never had before. As for my face, who knows how much younger I might look now if I hadn’t been such a complete moron then.
If I could go back in time, I’d save my joints. (The bone kind.) So, I was a runner, pounding New York’s pavement for about 50 miles a week. I got shin splints and more than one doctor told me to stop running because all that pounding was punishing my knees. When I balked and said exercise was a big part of my life, they’d usually toss words like swimming and yoga at me. Swimming? Hello, have you never heard of the blow-dry, doctor? What about your Hippocratic oath? I thought yoga was for people who went to health-food stores and didn’t need to work off the huge amounts of cereal and pasta I consumed. So I ignored all medical advice, and now I can’t run, squat, or lunge, and need to avoid stairs whenever possible. Did I mention I sometimes limp?
I had the chance to learn languages, for free! In high school, I half-heartedly made a stab at learning French – well enough to get a good grade anyway. Then that was it. In college I could have learned a language, maybe two. I was already in school, these classes were essentially free. I grew up in Miami; it would have been so easy to learn Spanish if I’d made any effort. I’m 60 now – I should be at least tri-lingual by now. Man, was I an idiot.
In my whole life I never once had a career goal. I never once devised a career path, asked for a raise, or spent any time on plotting out my future. If people were jerks, or situations unfair, I just suffered or sucked it up. And by that I mean complained. But I never actually took any action. (Does feeling sorry for yourself count as an action? I didn’t think so.) If I was unhappy in a job, I just sighed and pouted. Eventually I read the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and the first habit was “Be proactive.” The book changed my attitude and my life, but I wish I’d read it much sooner.
Nora Ephron famously said that if she could go back in time and have the body of her 20-something self, she’d walk around in a bikini all the time. Since I walked around in various stages of undress in my 20s, I can’t say that. (I thought tight dresses and short skirts would distract from my face and hair.) But I did waste most of my adult years literally hating my appearance. And to what end? It didn’t change anything. It didn’t help anything. It only made me miserable and a bore. Eventually, I had the good sense to realize no one but me cared about how I look. I certainly didn’t care about how other people looked. Once I began to focus on how much I cared about other people and animals, all the hours of self-loathing diminished. While I’d like to say I’m fully over all the ridiculous self-absorption of low self-esteem, I can say that I’ve seriously improved. (I even took up an exercise to force myself to post a photo of myself on Facebook almost every day, a “fake it ‘til you make it” tactic.)
While I became a bodybuilder and runner as an adult, I didn’t do anything physical as a kid or teen. I was at the tail end of that generation that didn’t encourage girls to do sports. I now have the self-knowledge to realize I really like physical activity. I wish I had tried track and weight-lifting in junior high. I think seeing my body as making an effort toward accomplishing instead of an imperfect accomplishment (a subject instead of an object) would have helped shift my self-critical focus. In my 30s I took up swing dancing and it became a big part of my life – the performing, the lessons. Truth be told, I’ve loved dancing, all kinds of dancing, as long as I can remember. I wish I’d pursued my passion IRL and not just in my head or alone in my room.
I can see from my “Time Machine List” that a lot of what I regret isn’t what I did* but what I didn’t do. I didn’t wear sunscreen. I didn’t learn a language. These days, what really stands out to me is my regret over the incredible amounts of time I wasted. The time hating the way I looked. Feeling sad and hurt by people and situations that I had the power to change but didn’t. Now my job is to learn from this list. I think I’ll sign up for a language class tomorrow.
* Ok, so there is one thing I did do I would definitely not do. I would not wear that slinky, slutty dress to my friend Holly’s wedding. WTF was I thinking?!??!
Dixie Laite has been a second-grade teacher and mechanical bull operator, and for the past 25 years she’s worked for a variety of TV networks as a writer, editorial director, trainer, advice columnist, even an on-air personality. But primarily she’s trotted around New York City in one cowboy shirt or another, lurking around flea markets, gyms, and anywhere they’ll hand her French toast. Currently she lounges around her apartment with one husband, one dog, five parrots, and roughly 2,000 pairs of shoes. Dixie is the main lady behind Age Against the Machine, a column about empowering women over 50. Sign up for the Jumble & Flowdown newsletter to stay in the know about Dixie’s latest columns.
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