- By Chris Hewitt
Plenty of people say they experienced transformational moments when they met the Dalai Lama or summited a mountain. Annabelle Gurwitch's moment came while she was going nuts on a trampoline.
The comic actress/writer tells the story in her bestselling book just released in paperback, I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50.
Gurwitch was about to hit the milestone birthday when she decided to join her teenage son on his new trampoline. She flailed around with little coordination, was told by her son that she was doing it wrong, and ended up needing treatment from a doctor.
But Gurwitch also had a great time because, on that trampoline, she suddenly realized, "I have no idea what the future looks like but I can still dive in, and I intend to keep doing it."
Being Bad is a Great Gift
According to Gurwitch, that's the most important sentence in her book.
"In the sandwich generation, we were taught that we must be good at everything we do, and I finally realized that perfectionism was strangling my creativity, my health, just about everything," says Gurwitch. "That's the joy of this age for me: taking that away, having a greater acceptance of my own fallibility."
In fact, Gurwitch says that "sucking at things" is one of the unexpected gifts of reaching 50 (she's now 52). And the list of her suckage is growing.
(MORE: The 11 Greatest TED Talks for Anyone Over 50)
"One of those things is: I joined a choir. I can't sing. I'm terrible. And I'm also an atheist. But I love to sing, so I found a non-denominational, non-audition choir, and it is my greatest joy," says Gurwitch.
She's also not a great cook, despite spending six years as co-host of the cooking show, Dinner & a Movie, but she has been rediscovering the fun of puttering in the kitchen.
And she has taken up meditation, "which I hate, but I think it's good for me, so I'm sticking with it."
Admittedly, Gurwitch is in a tough business for women over 50, given that the career of a Hollywood actress is said to consist of just three phases: Babe, District Attorney and "Driving Miss Daisy."
The Drive for Perfectionism
But the actress, who has done guest spots on dozens of TV series, thinks the drive for perfection is less a Hollywood thing than a generational thing.
"I've talked with everyone from a pediatric surgeon to an investment banker who was let go when she was 50 and had to reinvent herself, and we all have it," she says. "Some people are saying it's a product of the baby boom, that the Millennials and Generation X and the other people who came after us are not as focused on it as we are."
It's not that Gurwitch is giving up on excelling. She says she still struggles to be a better actress, writer and mom. But she tries not to measure herself against Meryl Streep, Emily Dickinson and Carol Brady anymore because "those comparisons were sucking all the joy out of those things for me."
Breaking out of the perfectionism rut can be trickier than it sounds.
Gurwitch acknowledges in her book that she has had some work done and that any time she gets near a department store makeup counter, she "feels like I'm a target for the billion-dollar cosmaceutical industry. But I also know that, unless there's a time machine in those little jars, they're not going to work."
So what does work? Gurwitch thinks the secret may be focusing less on what you're doing than on how you're doing it.
"To me, what's more important than making any big changes in my life is: How am I doing what I do?" says Gurwitch. "Am I doing it with joy? Am I doing it with energy? Am I being my best self, not in a gross, new-agey way but in a practical way, like: Am I kind to the barista at Starbuck's? The quality of my life is affected by those little interactions with people, and I try to make sure I am having good interactions on a daily basis."
Being Truthful and Laughing a Lot
As the title of her book suggests, Gurwitch has also given up on lying about her age.
"Part of what I'm trying to do is find some acceptance in that number," says Gurwitch. "I started to feel we were doing ourselves a disservice by embracing ideas like, '50 is the new 40.' No, it isn't. You're not fooling anyone, and it makes it seem like we're not owning all of those years of experience and intelligence. I mean, if we're running away from 50, how will we maintain our place in this ageist society?"
(MORE: 9 Best Things About Being Over 50)
The other message in the very funny I See You Made an Effort, which is named for what Gurwitch's hair stylist says when she bothers to put on makeup before coming in, is that a sense of humor helps a lot.
In Effort, Gurwitch often comes off like a latter-day Erma Bombeck (a reference you may need to be 50 to appreciate), whipping out zingers such as, "Wearing vintage clothes when you ARE vintage is a double negative."
In the book, Gurwitch weathers the deaths of friends and the failing health of her parents with reserves of wit, grit and a sense that not knowing how much time you have left is a great way to kick yourself in the butt.
"I think this age, at its best, is a call to action," Gurwitch says.
And that's why, when people ask her if she's aging gracefully, she's quick to reply with what sounds like a twist on Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night: "No. I'm aging with a vengeance. I'm just not going away."
Highlights From 'I See You Made an Effort'
Here are some snippets from the book:
"I'm a child of the '70s. I saw 'Logan's Run.' I know that soylent green is people, and that if we live forever, we're unfairly stealing resources that belong to future generations. But when it comes to giving up your seat at the dinner table, most of us prefer to linger for one more coffee and dessert."
"In 2009, when Eileen Fisher announced that she wanted to target younger customers, a lot of women over 50 were pissed off. Incidentally, American women over 50 spend more than $25 billion a year on clothes. We also have more discretionary income than any other demographic group. Why'd you break up with us, Eileen?"
"When you employ the word 'juggling' at this age, it's code for 'things I'm failing to do well.'"
Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.