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Writer Struggles With Inevitable : Books: Elizabeth Kaye's epiphany hit at 35, when she felt the years slipping away. She mourned--and wrote, producing 'Mid-Life--Notes From the Halfway Mark.'

June 22, 1995|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elizabeth Kaye was 35 years old when she learned a shocking truth: She didn't have long to live.

The realization didn't come in the typical fashion. No stony-faced doctor informed her that she had terminal cancer. There wasn't a thing wrong with her, in fact.

All at once it just dawned on Kaye that life is short and death is certain.

The source of her epiphany was hitting the probable halfway point of her existence, that chronological apex known as middle age. She may as well have hit a Mack truck in a Miata.

Confronted with the death of her youth, Kaye began to mourn. Then she began to write. The result is "Mid-Life--Notes From the Halfway Mark" (Addison Wesley, 1995).

Kaye, who lives in New York with drama and dance critic Clive Barnes, discusses her book during a quick pass through Los Angeles, where she lived for 12 years in her 20s and 30s and which she came to see as "a useful place for viewing midlife's early effects."

The focal point of her attire on this warm afternoon about two decades later is a pair of knee-high black boots. It is possible to read in that fashion statement an allusion to Nancy Sinatra, who appeared at age 54, sans attire, in the May issue of Playboy--signaling the lifting of at least one subjective ceiling on sexual allure.

But, with a photographer blazing away, Kaye fingers her scarf self-consciously, well aware, she explains, of this culture's harsh judgment of people who lack the taste to stay forever 23.

A contributing editor to Esquire magazine, Kaye had spent a good part of her life chronicling a generation whose favorite aphorisms flatly rejected age:

\o7 The good die young.

Burn, don't rust.

\f7 Without much thought and with considerable chemical assistance, she had ripped along, foot-to-the-floorboards, in the fast-living, youth-worshiping flow.

Then one day--to riff on an always popular rock 'n' roll metaphor--she looked in the rearview mirror and saw youth trotting along in the dust. Slumped beside her in the shotgun seat was a great sadness.

Even as she sank into deep melancholy, though, Kaye realized something else was wrong. The culture of youth, she decided, had declared aging taboo.

"There came a time in our culture," Kaye says, "when youth was no longer a condition but a moral virtue. It's almost as if aging has become stigmatized the way alcoholism used to be. . . . It occurred to me that I was feeling things I'm not supposed to feel."

Yet there it was. With her rich history trailing behind her--a former marriage, many lovers, hobbies, travel and a respected career--she felt a growing terror. As a seemingly accelerating clock pushed Kaye from her 30s into her 40s, life's opportunities narrowed.

"It's not about looks," she says. "Anyone knows you can fix your looks. To admit age is to inform the world of a decreased vitality."

Of course, people also turn to "cosmetic" drugs such as the antidepressant Prozac. And Kaye says she has no problem with that.

"But," she says, "they don't have drugs or surgery yet to fix death."

Kaye smiles. "If you can't feel bad about the fact that you're going to die, what can you feel bad about? If you can't grieve for that, what can you grieve for?"

It would be easy to dismiss Kaye's book as more woe-is-me baby boomer whining. Her life, after all, was privileged by most standards. And there's no indication that Kaye tried to take her mind off poor sad Kaye by delousing the homeless or shampooing lepers.

When she says, "I think life is harder than people told us," readers may be tempted to blurt: "What people? Your manicurist? Your aerobics instructor?"

But in so blurting, Kaye hints, readers may be revealing a boomer affliction even more definitive than self-absorption: Denial.

If her generation, the '60s generation, has been about anything, it's been about control, Kaye says. "We controlled our mood with drugs, we wanted to control the world so we had a peace movement. . . . Anything we could control, we did."

What they couldn't control they tried to deny.

Aging, ultimately, is about "the failure of everything," and death is beyond control. And boomers' squeamishness about that, she says, is responsible for everything from an entertainment industry obsessed with happy endings to bestsellers whose authors contend they bopped back from death or were saved, in the nick of time, "by the Light."

Kaye tries not to discount those coping mechanisms.

"Whatever works should be fine," she says, "from a shot of vodka to high Episcopalian Mass."

As a writer, though, Kaye used her mind and heart to grapple with life and death.

In reviewing "Mid-Life" for The Times, Karen Stabiner wrote: "Kaye's prose has a hypnotic quality, almost as though she had recalled it in a trance. . . ."

Personal and poetic, the book bears no resemblance to the sort of quick-fix, how-to fare to which so many aging boomers have turned for psychic anesthesia.

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