A rough year, eased by her own writing

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A rough year, eased by her own writing
The author Ada Calhoun, right, visits with her parents, Brooke Alderson, left, and Peter Schjeldahl in Manhattan on Dec. 8, 2019. Calhoun had a rough year but, fortunately, the process of writing her latest book prepared her for it. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

by Hilary Howard

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Two years ago, a cri de coeur of an essay addressing why middle-aged women were overwhelmed and exhausted went viral. Its author, Ada Calhoun, ended up writing an entire book on the subject: “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis" (out this month).

Born and raised in Manhattan’s East Village, Calhoun, who grew up in an artistic household (her father, Peter Schjeldahl, is an art critic for The New Yorker; her mother, Brooke Alderson, a former actress) was part of a generation of women who came of age both empowered and duty-bound. Hitting midlife with this psychic duality, when dreams give way to responsibility, can be especially challenging for Gen Xers, who have high expectations, she writes.

But Calhoun didn’t know how much the book would help her, personally, until 2019, during what she called a “year of death and destruction” that would involve sickness, a fatal stroke, a destructive fire and displacement. “I’m not as blindsided as I could have been,” she said. “Thank God I wrote this book.”

Calhoun, 43, lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with her husband, Neal Medlyn, 44, a performance artist, their son, Oliver, 13, a kitten named Claude, a turtle named Ginny (after a Harry Potter character) and a “feeder fish that has survived for three years” named Katniss the Fifth.

SPIRITS We have coffee preprogrammed, which is essential. I wake up at 7 or 8. The cat needs ear drops. I have to feed the turtle. I give Oliver breakfast, usually pancakes. Sometimes we go to Grace Church. It’s an Episcopal church. I was raised in a bohemian agnostic household and Neal grew up hard-core Pentecostal, so we met in the middle.

PLAY DATES Sometimes we’re too lazy for church and just sit there and drink coffee. Usually there will be children descending. Oliver’s friends, Stella and Lois, sisters, Swiss and magical girls, or Aims and his brother Wilm, they’re Dutch. Last weekend I took Stella and Oliver to the Central Park Zoo. There’s a vintage clothing store they like to go to, Quality Mending. Aims and Oliver and Wilm like to dress up in military regalia there. Or there’s Domino Park, down by the river, or Grand Ferry Park. There are all these rocks there for climbing. Domino is the new snazzy one. But Grand Ferry Park is more wild.

AMERICANA WINS At some point we’ll have to eat lunch. Oliver’s favorite is Khao Sarn, a little Thai place. But Neal likes Pies ’n’ Thighs. It’s a Texan fried-chicken place. They argue and usually Neal wins.

CHALLENGES Last summer and fall were very tragedy-filled. In July, Neal’s father had a stroke. He died in August. In September, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In October there was a major fire at my parents’ building and their apartment was destroyed. They lived there for almost 47 years. They escaped in bare feet through the flames. I found them a sublet on 11th street between Avenues B and C.

TO DO I’ll go by the apartment. I’m taking stuff to clean that can be saved. The back is destroyed and in my dad’s office, the papers, gone. I will visit my parents on 11th Street. They are in such shock that they can’t remember things very well. I take notes at doctors meetings, take notes at coop meetings. I think they have PTSD. I’m in constant touch with my father’s doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

COPING Three things help: a support network, I built that. Adjusting expectations. Expectations were very unreasonable for Gen X. And knowing that there’s a temporal nature of this phase in life. I have a lot of friends in their 50s and 60s. One day, I’ll be in that camp, and thank God I’ll be done with this difficult part.

SOB SISTERS I’ll probably go by 11th Street Bar and meet up with my friends Susannah Cahalan and Karen Abbott for a planning meeting. They are both best-selling nonfiction authors. Susannah will probably bring her babies with her. I find it helpful to hold babies in this trying time. Our group is called Sob Sisters. That’s what they used to call women reporters in the 1930s. It’s usually between 20 and 30 women authors and journalists who meet once a month for a reading and to talk shop.

BOOKS AND SCREENS I head home around 5 or 6. I still read to Oliver. We’re going through this Young Bond series. They are very violent and very suspenseful and very addictive. Then he’ll read to himself.

I’m in a lull with television. I watch a lot of NY1. I find it very comforting. I like the repetition. I like the voices. It makes New York feel like a small town.

GRAVITY AND GRACE I’ll usually do some work on my laptop. I’m working on a book about Frank O’Hara. So I’m reading a lot of him. I found all these tapes in my dad’s basement. He had tried to do a biography of O’Hara in the ’70s when I was a baby. So he didn’t finish it. I digitized them all. I’m trying to figure out what it is.

I’m also reading “Gravity and Grace,” by Simone Weil. Anything like that helps to make sense of all the terrible things that have been happening.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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