Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Most Memorable Gift

My seventeenth summer was, in many ways, a miserable one.

I spent ten weeks of that summer taking a full year of accelerated high school chemistry at the local public school. Several of my classmates from my Catholic girls' school had started with me, but dropped out in favor of days at the beach and pleasure reading after an intense first week of class.

I had no choice but to persevere: at my school, chemistry class conflicted with journalism, my planned college major. I had to stay in this summer scientific marathon, enduring exams every day, midterms at every two weeks, cramming material that didn't come easy to me, struggling through experiments (including splashing sulfuric acid on my face when I dropped a vial on the desk and having the teacher hold my face under a running faucet, exacerbating my already embarrassing bad hair day).

But there was a bright light in the midst of this adolescent misery: time with my mother. Every day after picking me up from class and before I delved into mounds of homework, we would stop at the local supermarket ice cream counter to get fountain Cokes to go and then would sit in her car in the store's parking lot, the windows down, sprawling on the front bench seat, sipping our Cokes and talking for an hour. It was a blessed respite, a time I remember warmly and with love more than half a century later.

When you think back on your life, do you find yourself having the sweetest memories not of lavish gifts or fancy vacations but of moments, savored, ordinary moments with a loved one who gave you the greatest gift of all -- the gift of his or her time and attention?

My husband Bob treasures memories of times with his grandparents, sitting at the dining room table playing cards hour after hour. What endures is that how much they enjoyed each other's company and how happily he fit in, feeling warm comfort that makes him smile all these years later. He doesn't remember what was said, but that they were there together.

Often, it really doesn't matter what is said, but what one feels.

My maternal grandfather, a Kansas farmer, was a man of few words, famously taciturn. But when he would hand me a bucket with a quick smile, I knew it was our time together. We would trudge out to his mile-long strawberry patch to pick berries, often in silence but in a joint effort that somehow felt wonderfully intimate. From time to time, he would find a particularly choice berry and silently, but with a twinkle in his eyes offer it to me as an instant treat. And I felt dearly loved.

There were times when my father would invite me along on his errands with a food enticement: "Hey, Baby, want to go get tacos and root beer?" Tacos and root beer! My sudden joy was tempered with caution. My eyes would narrow.

"We're not going to the Dow Radio store, are we?"

My father would smile. "Well, who can say? But it would be nice to get out and about together, don't you think?"

My antipathy for Dow Radio -- a huge warehouse of small, musty, totally boring electronics parts -- would fade as I thought of spending time with my father when he was, for the moment, sober and in a good mood.

And those times of sitting together at the taco place, next door to Dow Radio, talking and laughing, are the moments with him that stand out all these years later.

And those Saturdays with Aunt Molly! The memory of these makes me smile. My father's sister was a single career woman, a professional writer, a woman I idolized all my life. Those Saturdays with her live on as treasured memories. We had a routine and, yes, it involved food -- always turkey sandwiches at a very cool sit down restaurant near Vroman's, our favorite bookstore where we spent hours exploring each week. But what I remember most was the joy of feeling special, blessed with her company. It was a day out for just the two of us, having ordinary conversations, going to the same stores and the same restaurant every week, sharing such pleasure in our Saturday routine.

It makes me wonder what gifts of time might mean the most to the next generation in our family. What will matter, years from now, to my own niece Maggie, now only six years old?

Will she think back and remember our hours of playing princess games -- and my trying to teach her lessons in friendship in the voice of a loyal but truculent princess friend who insists that real friends don't just ask for favors but show concern and caring for each other? (And I smiled as I watched her immediately turn to her mother, who had complained of a headache, and ask how she was feeling.) Will Maggie remember the lessons? Or simply that we sat together, hour after hour, at the kitchen table or the family room floor of her L.A. home playing together? Or will she remember the times cooking holiday meals together, paying close attention as I made my special stuffing "so I can keep making that dressing after you're dead."

After I have left this world, maybe what will matter most to her was just that we shared time together -- cooking, tasting, laughing and pretending to be princesses.

It's enough to give one pause about the modern tendency to substitute money or gifts for time. Time spent with those you love is much more important than money spent.

There simply is no substitute in showing one's love to another than simply being there, being present, giving a gift that that costs nothing but has enduring value in how it makes another feel -- at the moment and always.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Saga of Sweet Pea

What happens when that winsome pound puppy you saw in a newspaper column morphs into Cujo once you get him home?

What happens when a cute little kitten you found online in Petfinder turns out to be incredibly fierce, non-cuddly and bristles with teeth and claws?

Too often, such animals are handed back quickly to pounds and rescue organizations or, even worse, dumped and left to die -- unwanted and unloved.

While some animals have emotional and aggression issues that are tough to solve and may pose a hazard, especially if there are small children around, and that may prevent them from being realistic candidates for adoption, too many people give up too soon with what seems to be an unlovable animal. With time, patience and love, an unpromising pet can become a loving companion.

That's what happened with our own Sweet Pea.

Our saga together began in the summer of 2010. We had just lost our beloved Marina, a beautiful and sweet flame point Siamese mix, to leukemia at the age of three. Marina had been a therapy cat, helping a number of my psychotherapy patients to calm down, to smile again and, in the case of warring couples, to speak softly to each other. She was incredibly loving, sleeping on my pillow, spending hours in Bob's lap and trilling with joy whenever I looked her way. Losing her so suddenly, so young, to a disease we hadn't known she had (her rescue organization insisted that she had tested negative and we had never let her outside) broke our hearts.

Our beloved Marina

I knew that one cat never replaces another but, some months after her death, I yearned for another smart and sweet Siamese mix, preferably a flame-point -- a mixture of red or orange tabby with Siamese. There were no flame points available in local rescue groups or shelters then -- and would not be until a kitten named Hamish became available to us in 2012.

But in the summer of 2010, there was a lynx-point Siamese mix kitten at a shelter about 40 miles away. Her name was Sweet Pea. She looked so small and vulnerable in her online shelter picture. I broke precedent and contacted the shelter, saying that I would adopt her without as much as an introductory cuddle.

                                                  Sweet Pea Shelter Portrait

                              Sweet Pea, unusually docile, her first day with us

She wasn't in the shelter at that time because she hadn't "done well" in the facility. She was being fostered in the home of a devoted volunteer. Sweet Pea was something of a mystery. She had walked up to the door of the shelter, all alone and tiny at four weeks old one spring morning. This shelter was in the middle of the desert, miles from the city of Casa Grande. The consensus was that she had been dumped -- alone, unloved and not quite weaned.

Her foster mother Colleen described her to me as "lively, funny, feisty and larger than life." She said that she and her husband had dubbed her "The Pea Who Will Take Over the World." I heard what I wanted to hear: lively and funny. I didn't stop to consider what feisty and "larger than life" might mean.

Tip: Listen for euphemisms. Lively might mean a holy terror. Feisty might mean you need protective gloves, garments and a face shield to handle.

Another tip: when you encounter a shelter animal with "Sweet" or "Sugar" in its name, be afraid.

When we went to the shelter to adopt Sweet Pea, Colleen and her husband arrived with the kitten in their own cat carrier. Without ceremony, they quickly transferred Sweet Pea to our cat carrier and vanished.

We soon understood why.

Sweet Pea was unlike any cat we had ever known. Despite her tiny size, she was incredibly fierce. When our gentle old cat Gus came up to nuzzle her in a feline welcome, she bit him in the face. When our calm, sweet female cat Maggie tried to groom her, Sweet Pea hissed and lashed out. Once past her vulnerable first few days with us, she made it clear to us that she didn't want to be touched or picked up. She was a cute looking kitten who grew into a beautiful cat with wonderfully soft fur. But the greatest impression she made on us was the sharpness of her teeth and claws and her hair-trigger temper.

                                          Sweet Pea attacking gentle Gus

There were times when we were tempted to return her to the shelter, but we have always believed, through our years of living with and loving rescued cats, that adoption means a lifetime commitment. We hoped that long-term, consistent love would calm her fear and anxiety and tame her fierceness.

In the meantime, we amused ourselves with a series of descriptive nicknames like "Rabid Badger" and "Wild Weasel", which pretty much summed up her behavior and temperament. She was the anti-Marina, the feline equivalent of the Antichrist.

Bob and I dedicated ourselves to immersing this unpromising young cat in love. We talked softly to her, telling her that she was loved. We learned to respect her desire for space and autonomy, touching her only when she sought our attention. We gave her special treats.

And, in time, she became less hostile and anxious. She began to crave proximity to her people -- following us from room to room, wanting to be wherever we were, sitting beside me as I typed on the computer, her head resting on my left hand.  As more time passed, she became friendlier with the other cats and sought petting from us at times of her choosing. She started cuddling beside me as I sat on the couch reading newspapers and spent hours in Bob's lap, not wanting to be touched too much, but yearning to be close. We found that she loved to have her picture taken, often jumping up to get into a photo, striking a dramatic pose.

                                                  Sweet Pea with Bob

                                           Sweet Pea helping with this blog post

Pea striking a Christmas pose

We found that when we respected her preferences, as different as these might be from our other cats, she was a lovely and constant companion.

Now Sweet Pea is five years old and a much loved member of our family. Some aspects of the Rabid Badger remain. Unasked for petting can lead to a light bite. (She did a star turn in my trailer for my "Purr Therapy" book by biting on cue in the role of the least likely candidate for becoming a therapy cat.) The other cats find her volatility fascinating. Hamish, our three-year-old flame point Siamese, will simply sit in front of her and stare, without any signs of overt hostility, and watch her go into a paroxysm of hissing, spitting, thrashing rage. Minutes later, they're cuddling up together.

                             Sweet Pea played the heavy in Purr Therapy trailer

Sweet Pea is loving and affectionate on her own terms, in her own time. We leave her alone when she seeks solitude and welcome her when she craves company. She has become our official greeter for guests and she tends to be friendlier to strangers than our other cats. Not long ago, my friend Mary visited us from California and quickly decided that Sweet Pea was her favorite among our four cats. "This poor kitty has received altogether too much bad press," she declared, throwing Pea a fond glance as they sat together on the couch.

                              Mary contending that Pea has had "bad press"

Part of Sweet Pea's progress has been our love despite her hair-trigger temper and our acceptance of her as she is. We touch her only when she asks us to. She has taught us valuable lessons in the importance of respecting an animal's wishes instead of our insisting on cuddling this soft, furry creature. She runs a tight ship with firm boundaries and we've learned to respect these. When she feels safe and respected, Sweet Pea can be quite wonderful.

                                            Our beloved Sweet Pea 

Every day we spend with this funny, feisty, larger than life cat who has taught us humility, the importance of respect for another creature, and the joy of hard-won love is special.

She's a living reminder of the value of not giving up.

Monday, August 3, 2015

How Old Are You Inside?

Want to know your real age?

You could simply stick to your chronological age.

You could take one of those online tests reviewing lifestyle habits and genetic influences that may add or subtract years from your chronological age.

Or you could simply ask yourself "What age do I feel inside?"

You may surprise yourself.

It was certainly a surprise when my husband Bob asked this of my 90-year-old grandmother nearly 40 years ago.

She had been sitting quietly as my mother and Aunt Ruth discussed her and her medical challenges as if she weren't present. Feeling bad for her, Bob struck up a conversation by asking her what age she felt inside.

Her eyes twinkled. "Oh, eighteen, of course," she said with a smile. "I've always felt eighteen inside!" And she began to flirt with him, showing a glimpse of the lovely young woman living within.

I told this story to my friend Mary and her husband John recently as we sat on their patio overlooking the golf course in an active adult community near Los Angeles. John, who is 80, had been talking about how frustrated he was by the limitations imposed on him by age -- and others' assumptions about older people. "I have so many ideas..." he said, trailing off.

He said that when he considered his inside age, it would have to be about 50 -- a time when he was at the top of his game as an executive with an international corporation. The executive within continues to come up with ideas and insights, frustrated by the physical limitations and advancing age that lead others to assume that he's content to sit in the sunshine, watching others play golf.

Mary smiled and said that she feels like the fun-loving girl she was at 17, sneaking out at night to  join her friends, spending sunny days on the beach in Malibu. Chronologically, those days are more than half a century behind her, but something of the lively teenager she once was lingers in her warm engagement with life, with her laughter and her enduring love for her friends. She has been super responsible and conscientious for years now, but there is a part of her still celebrating in the sun.

She asked me how old I felt inside. I thought for a long time.  "Maybe 32 or 33, " I said at last. "I feel young, but mature. I first felt that way in my early thirties. That was a time of new professional and personal beginnings, a time of reinventing myself which I seem to keep doing again and again. I still feel the energy and ambition I felt then."

That's the short and easy answer. But there are times when I feel like my shy eight-year-old self or my self-conscious adolescent self, amazed that I can handle a stressful situation without anyone discovering how uncertain I really am. And there are times when I'm tired or discouraged and feel suddenly, temporarily, quite old.

I saw the Tony-award winning Broadway musical "Fun Home" in June when I was in New York and was intrigued by the fact that, in this musical adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel's memoir, three actresses portraying her as a child, as a college student and as a mature adult were onstage together much of the time, sometimes playing separate scenes, sometimes harmonizing. And it occurred to me that we are all comprised of the various versions of ourselves at different ages -- sometimes in discord, sometimes in harmony. And there are times when the self at a certain age prevails.

How old are you inside?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Same Thing, Over and Over....Why?

Gina seems doomed to relationships with men who are so involved in their work that they can't spend as much time relaxing with her as she would like. She ruminates and make demands. They back off. The relationships end, often with considerable rancor. And then she meets another driven man...

A former client of mine whom I'll call Ron kept souring on work situations. He started each new job with real hope that this time it would be different. But it never was. All too soon, he would find himself bored and dissatisfied with the work and disappointed in the office environment, feeling isolated and not liked by co-workers.

Another client, Bonnie, kept losing the same fifteen pounds over and over in a seemingly endless loop of weight loss and regain.

Why do we keep doing things that make us unhappy? Why do we repeat the same scenarios over and over?

It's important to understand why certain patterns emerge.

If you find yourself attracted to romantic partners or friends who cause you grief, examine your own feelings, desires and motivations.

Gina, for example, is attracted to achievers after a long marriage, now ended in divorce, to a successful, wealthy businessman. "I'm attracted to successful guys, no question," she says. "I like the benefits of a guy's success, I'll have to admit." Gina has little professional ambition herself and prefers a quiet life of yoga, meditation and exercise. But she's not attracted to similarly mellow males, seeing them as slackers.

It was only when she began to examine her own negative self-talk about herself as a slacker that she began to make a plan to enhance her own career prospects, making her less dependent on a man financially and more open to a wider variety of men. She also began to see that, perhaps by choosing men who would always disappoint her with their unavailability, she was making a choice not to commit to a relationship.

When she began to see her own complicity in her recurring romantic disasters, Gina began to think about how changing her own behavior could change her romantic prospects and, most important, her own life satisfaction.

It's important, too, to see what changes you might want to make if you've found yourself with friends or lovers who are critical or abusive or otherwise detrimental to your well-being. No one deserves abuse or shabby treatment. If you find yourself endlessly trying to please, making concessions you don't want to make, ask yourself why you feel the need to do this. Talking with a therapist and/or people who truly love you about this can help you to uncover and change the feelings of unworthiness, low self-regard, or other negative self-talk that could be leading you to these unhappy (and unhealthy) relationships.

If you find yourself in the same situation at different work places: It is time to ask yourself some difficult questions: are you in a line of work congruent with your talents and personality? Do you need to re-think your career strategies? Go to night classes for re-training? Consider a complete career change? And are you doing anything to irritate or alienate co-workers in job after job? It can be quite telling when different workplaces with different people all seem to work out the same way for you. It's time to see what your own contribution might be to your workplace unhappiness.

Sylvia, a former client, always felt like an outsider at a succession of workplaces. She told me that co-workers and bosses didn't seem to like her. We examined her interactions at work and found that there was a behavior pattern, stemming from Sylvia's long-ago childhood, that was causing problems for her everywhere she went.

Sylvia, a middle child who felt that both her older sister and younger brother got preferential treatment from their parents, brought these feelings to each workplace. When her boss reprimanded her for being late to work, her response was not to apologize and take responsibility for her tardiness but to accuse him of preferential treatment of younger, more attractive co-workers who were also sometimes late and who seemed to get away with it. She was quick to bring their transgressions to his attention and to resent what she perceived as special treatment of others. This behavior made her unpopular with both bosses and co-workers until she began to realize that playing out a childhood sense of unfairness in her workplace was not productive. She found that when she changed her behavior even a little, it made a big difference.

If you find yourself having trouble with change: You're part of a very large club! Many of us struggle with change, whether it's making a commitment to a relationship, to lose weight, to change jobs or to say "No" to an adult child who is hitting you up for more and more financial help -- again. Making a step-by-step plan for change and starting with a small, do-able step can set you on the way to positive change.

Deciding that just for today, just for right now, you will eat a healthy meal, not with a sense of deprivation, but with the happy discovery that healthy food is delicious, is an important first step toward permanent weight loss. Deciding to say or do something kind for another instead of being critical can be a vital first step toward building a positive relationship -- romantic or friendship -- with another. Deciding that just this minute, just right now, you will speak up for yourself and refuse to tolerate another's cruel comments or that you will say "No" to raiding your savings to pay off your adult child's credit card debt once again can be the beginning of a growing sense of self and of your adult child's beginning to grow up and take responsibility at last.

That first step toward change is hard, but it can get easier with time, with each step you take.

It isn't easy to change long established patterns. But it starts with a decision and taking that first step and then another and another.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Making Peace with Siblings: Enhancing the Longest Relationships of Our Lives

Maggie, 6, and Henry, 3, engaged in sibling stuff

It's all so transparent in childhood as siblings pinch, fight and tattle on each other.

"MOM! He's looking at me!"

"He hit me first..."

"I didn't do it....she did it!"

I see traces of this in my young niece Maggie and her little brother Henry as, like little lion cubs, they cuddle and wrestle and fight both in play and for real. They also love each other fiercely and show dramatic differences in temperament. Ebullient Maggie loves to talk, play fantasy games and visit with both other children and adult friends. She loves the spotlight. Henry is quiet, thoughtful, introspective. He plays happily by himself and when he initiates a sibling tussle, it is quiet -- like the pinch above in one of Maggie's spotlight moments.

In adulthood, sibling troubles can take on many forms with rivalries and resentments carried from childhood forward.

My friend Lisa has been estranged for years from her older sister Dee whom she feels has always been bossy and judgmental, always making comparisons, with Lisa coming out the loser. Even though both are currently battling cancer, silence prevails. "I can't imagine us having a good conversation," Lisa insists. "Unless, of course, she changes."

Another friend, Denise, limits contact with her two older brothers because she finds herself regressing when she gets together with her sibs. "The teasing, which started when I was little, is just relentless," she says. "I feel sucked back into my less than ideal childhood when we get together. They treat me like they always did -- like a pesky little sister they'd rather not be with."

My neighbor Don hasn't seen his only brother in decades. "We tolerated each other growing up, helped by an eight year age difference which made our daily worlds quite separate," he says. "But once we were grown up and that age difference didn't matter so much, I realized that I really didn't like him much as a human being. I suspect that he feels the same way about me."

Indeed, there are some sibling relationships that are beyond repair. Others, however, are --or could be -- loving and supportive.

How do you minimize the troubles and maximize the love with your siblings?

* Forget the old roles and patterns of childhood. That was then. This is now. Being the eldest doesn't entitle one to be bossy or judgmental or prescriptive with younger siblings. Being the youngest doesn't mean that shirking responsibility is okay.  You're all adults and there are moments when you need to come together with love and commitment and maturity to handle serious family matters -- like aging and dying parents and estates to be settled.

These family crises are prime fodder for fights over which sibling does what or which one doesn't step up to the plate, who is more entitled, most supportive, least responsible. In so many of these scenarios, the subtext behind the family drama remains much the same as it was in the early years: someone was loved most, someone felt left out, someone did much without praise, someone was lauded just for being.

The challenge is to find an emotional path past the old hurts to a new understanding -- that we all handle crises and grief in our singular ways, that people do the best they can at the time, even if it feels woefully inadequate to others, that everyone wants to feel cherished. Reaching out to siblings, in times of calm as well as crisis, with love and understanding can help to begin to heal some of those old wounds.

*Be the first to reach out. This may mean being the first to apologize (even if you feel your sibling should be the one to apologize first!). It may mean being the first to say "I would like us to be closer."

We have no control over whether or when a sibling will reach out to us or change his or her behavior. So, rather than waiting until a sibling changes -- as my friend Lisa hopes that her judgmental, bossy older sister will -- try initiating change in your own way and your own time.

This can mean reacting to old behavior patterns in a new way, like refusing to react with outrage to teasing or revisiting and rehashing old arguments that lead to nothing but heartbreak. It can mean calling a truce, agreeing to disagree, letting go of old hurts. It can mean expressing a need for closeness and connection. Or it can mean overlooking the sibling trait that has led, in the past, to arguments and hurt feelings. It can mean speaking up for yourself or laughing along with stories of your childhood foibles or changing your way of being with your family of origin.

My husband Bob grew up in a family that was loving, but a bit distant and non-demonstrative. When he was thirty and in therapy for the first time, he realized his need to express his love in more physical ways. That Christmas, he stunned his family by greeting them with warm hugs and expressions of love. As he looked around, his entire family, even his brother -- who often kept others at a distance with barbed humor -- was smiling through tears. From then on, hugs and kisses added warmth to each family gathering.

So in looking to change the dynamics of a sibling relationship, be the first to speak up, reach out and express your desire to build new closeness.

* Respect each other's differences. Just as my niece and nephew Maggie and Henry differ so dramatically in temperament even at their young ages, you and your siblings may be very different people.

Even though you spent your childhoods together, your perspective of those years may be quite different from those of your siblings. Instead of arguing about which one is correct, it's important to understand that each one is correct. No one has quite the same experience -- whether it's in relationships with parents and other family members, or experiences in school or in the passage of adolescence.

My brother Mike, three years younger than I, was the frequent target of our father's rage and abuse which escalated to life-threatening intensity as Mike reached his teens. Our frightened mother put him on a train one night, sending him to live with her own widowed mother. He spent his high school and undergraduate college years with Grandma, then in her mid-seventies, helping her out on her Kansas farm and feeling his life evolve to a wonderful new normal. Away from the stress and abuse of his childhood home and with Grandma's unconditional love, he thrived, excelling academically, enjoying close friendships with classmates and with cousins and a very special bond with an amazing woman whose memory he still cherishes.

My sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am, is fiercely independent and, in her younger years, grew up largely as an only child of rapidly aging, ill and isolated parents (who had been in their mid-forties when she was born). She doesn't remember our father ever being employed. Her adolescent rebellion came in the form of angry confrontations. She felt invisible to teachers and classmates, though she excelled in her studies. And she was a truly gifted ballet dancer and found her dearest friends among her fellow dance students.

I shared Tai's love of ballet, though I was more enthusiastic than gifted. The parents I knew were a decade younger, my father successful in his work, both parents socializing with friends and neighbors on a regular basis. My adolescent rebellion took the form of aggressively pious religious observances, guaranteed to drive my parents (and everyone in the family) insane. Although my father's drinking and mental health issues were well in evidence when I was a child, he was still functional. I sought extra emotional support from a few close friends as well as two beloved teachers, both still lifelong friends, and our incomparable Aunt Molly, whom we all considered to be our third and best parent.

There are many memories that Mike, Tai and I do share, but I have also learned to understand that their memories are as real and valid as my own, whether they coincide with or whether they differ from mine.

Knowing your longtime, fundamental differences can also make understanding current differences better. You and a sibling may have very different ways of viewing the world, relating to others, handling money or raising children. Instead of judging, imagine life as they have seen and experienced it and find ways to admire them whatever their challenges may have been.

Respecting each other's differences in experience and perspective can go a long way toward forging stronger sibling bonds.

* Embrace the ways that you are similar.  Even though you and your siblings may lead very different lives, being aware of the traits and opinions and tastes you do share can enhance your times together. It may be favorite foods or old stories or family jokes. It may be shared values or beliefs.

When I think about my brother and sister, I smile as it occurs to me that while our differences in lifestyle are many, our fundamental beliefs are quite similar.  Tai, a Seattle-based hospital nurse specializing in labor and delivery, has spent many years as a divorced single parent of daughter Nick, now grown. I have no children, have been married to Bob for 38 years and now live in an active adult community in rural Arizona. Mike, still a busy M.D. and medical IT expert, didn't marry until he was 58 and his first child was born when he was 60. His wife Jinjuta is Thai and he lives with her and their children Maggie and Henry in the middle of bustling Bangkok, Thailand.

But when Mike, Tai and I get together and talk current affairs or politics, I'm always amazed at how similar our views are. We can spend hours discussing, sometimes ranting, about politics together with an abandon we wouldn't even try with others, however close and beloved. And that, as annoying as it might be to onlookers, is immensely reassuring. So is our shared belief that, as difficult as our childhoods might have been at times, we wouldn't change places with anyone.

* Celebrate this longest relationship of your life. While a strong and loving marriage is a special blessing and joy in one's life and the love for one's child is truly life-changing, the longest relationships one is likely to have in life will be with siblings.

This longest relationship can have its challenging times -- when you disagree over important family decisions or get on each other's nerves or will a reluctant sibling to make changes you see as potentially life-enhancing.

These longest relationships may or may not be the happiest or most intimate ones in your life. But, with care, with love and respect, they can be uniquely wonderful.

A brother or sister knows, unlike anyone else, exactly what life was like for you in your formative years. A sibling shares a history that predates by decades the life story you have built with your spouse and own children. Though your sibling relationships may have become less intense with time and distance, there still can be that wonderful sense of picking up where you left off, a feeling of safety, a unique camaraderie when you do get together. There may be those moments, reminiscent of childhood, with emotional pinching, tussling and teasing. But the times of understanding each other's lifelong challenges and celebrating each other's triumphs are truly priceless.

Hanging with my sister Tai and brother Mike in L.A.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Broadway Tribute and Celebration of Life

It began as a sweet whisp of memory for Jody Proetta, who grew up as a true Broadway baby in New York City, hanging around backstage at some legendary musicals with her beloved aunt and uncle who were Broadway dancers, teachers and choreographers. Her sweetest memory of those days was when they worked with the show "Oliver!".  She was eleven years old and had the chance to build a warm and lasting friendship with a talented British teenager named David Jones, who garnered a Tony nomination and nightly standing ovations for his performance as the Artful Dodger.


He was like a kind and protective older brother who listened to her hopes and dreams and who let her tag along when he went to Central Park some afternoons to relax in the shade of a beautiful tree and read poetry. Often, they would take turns reading favorite poems to each other.

Although Broadway and New York were always dear to his heart, David became Davy and left that part of his life behind for stardom as one of television's Monkees. But he always treasured the memory of his New York days.

So did Jody. Her memories of that sweet time with her special friend became especially poignant after his death in 2012. He was widely eulogized as a top teen idol and as a Monkee. But the prodigiously talented Broadway star and the gentle soul who helped at least one little girl feel so special seemed lost forever.

And so she began to plan an event that would celebrate Davy Jones as family, friends and co-workers remembered him. She imagined a celebration of his life on Broadway at one of his favorite restaurants -- Sardi's -- and the dedication of a tree -- that special tree that had shaded them more than half a century ago -- in his honor.


Davy's tree in Central Park

And that's how the idea began for A Tree Grows in Central Park, a Broadway Memorial for Davy Jones. It became reality last Sunday at Sardi's and then under that special tree at Central Park as a large, eclectic group gathered to pay tribute.

Speakers and performers included his friend and neighbor Cathy Whitehead, who spoke of Davy's dream to convert an abandoned church in their town of Beaverton, Pa, to a community center and museum and how she and other friends are working to make that dream happen; Buffy Ford Stewart, the "Sleepy Jean" of "Daydream Believer" whose husband John Stewart wrote that signature song for him; singer-songwriter Chris Pick, who wrote and performed a beautiful song in his memory; Fred Velez, a writer who became a friend as he helped Davy with one of his books and who has written a book of his own "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From a Fan's Perspective"; actress Valerie Kairys Venet, a frequent guest star on the Monkees; singer David Alexander who performed with Davy from time to time as his own busy career allowed and who remembered him as a singularly dear soul. The Monkees tribute band the Monkeephiles added to the festivities.

Valerie Kairys Venet and David Alexander
Photo by David Levin

David Alexander's musical tribute

Friend and neighbor Cathy Whitehead shares her memories and plans

Buffy Ford Stewart and Monkeephiles sing "Daydream Believer"

And I was included as a speaker because my first encounter with Davy Jones was during his time with "Oliver!" exactly 50 years ago, a time when he dried my tears and helped me through my very first interview as a college class assignment, an encounter I described in a blog post Dr. Kathy McCoy: Living Fully in Midlife and Beyond: Remembering Davy Jones.

When Jody and other friends spotted that blog post tribute to him as a kind young man who had helped me begin to lose my fear of interviewing, she was moved by the fact that I had seen his sweet essence during our brief time together. She called me and asked if I would come to New York to share that story with those who loved him at this special Broadway celebration.

I told celebrants how his kindness healed my fear
Photo by Amy Yost Pauling

Most moving moment: Chris Pick sings his memorial song
Video by Teri Holamon

The people crowding into the private dining room at Sardi's last Sunday were not just friends but also many fans from around the world. They had come from Europe and, in surprising numbers, from Japan. It was a day of sharing, singing and celebrating at Sardi's and under his favorite tree in Central Park.

Fans from Tokyo added special joy to the day

Jody Proetta and Kyoko Hosokawa
Photo by David Levin

Jody and other friends at the tree dedication ceremony

The recurring theme of the various tributes, musical and otherwise, was a celebration of Davy Jones for his kindness, genuine caring, and joy in living authentically.

I ended my talk with the thought that the measure of a person's character is not how they act when the spotlight is on them or when they're rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, but how they are when no one is looking, with someone who isn't rich or powerful, but young and scared. And by that measure, Davy Jones was a very special person.

Fred Velez, who had spent many hours working with Davy and got to know his family, offered the insight that another -- perhaps the ultimate -- measure of a person's character is how their children turn out -- and that Davy Jones' four beautiful, kind and caring daughters Talia, Sarah, Jessica and Annabel are his greatest legacy.

Fred Velez with Sarah, Talia and Jessica Jones

Fred Velez with Annabel Jones

It made perfect sense. When you think about it, the professional triumphs and standing ovations and world-wide fame matter less and less as time goes by.

It's true not just for Davy Jones but for all of us as everything fades but the love we leave behind.

What matters in the end is not how much money we made or didn't or how famous we were -- or not.

What matters is how kind we were, how considerate of others, how we followed our dreams and encouraged others to do the same, how we made others feel special and cherished. What matters is what we did when no one was looking and how we taught our children to be giving and kind and make the world a better place.

And that's what got Davy Jones his last standing ovation on Sunday.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Clearing Out Emotional Clutter

My friend Susan, who has been attending a cardiac support group after her heart valve surgery a few years ago, called recently to catch up. She began to tell me about her support group and then stopped, suddenly exasperated. "There is a woman in the group who is 84 years old and still complaining about how her parents limited her life and caused her so much pain," she said. "Can you imagine? Have you ever heard anything like that?"

Yes, actually, as a psychotherapist, I've heard stories like this many times. While we are all affected by a variety of life circumstances and events, there are some who find themselves haunted by past pain, by present toxic relationships and by negative thought patterns that prevent them from living life fully and joyfully.

It occurred to me that, even as we complete annual spring cleaning rituals, read best-selling books about the virtues of de-cluttering and think more seriously, as our birthdays fly by, about parting with cherished belongings, heirlooms and just plain junk, that we might also think about some emotional de-cluttering.

What is emotional clutter? It's the stuff you hold onto that makes living in the present less enjoyable.

Emotional clutter can be grudges and old hurts that weigh you down with remembered pain that stretches to the present and that separates you from those once loved. 

Think about it: as time goes by, does it really matter who offended whom? Does the apology you felt was due feel so urgent now? Would it feel worse to be the first to say "I'm sorry!" or to continue an emotional estrangement?

When you think of the energy it takes to hold onto righteous anger and, over time, the toll this takes on you, do you really want to continue to carry a grudge or nurse old wounds?

Or would it feel better to open your mind and your heart, to reach out with love -- whether or not the other person responds in kind -- and begin to release those old ghosts from the past?

Emotional clutter can be echoes from a distant, painful childhood where the remembered voices of those who caused you to suffer still resonate.

There are those, like the woman in my friend Susan's therapy group, who cling to pain from the past and preclude any possibilities of growth and change and joyous living. There are those whose lives become about victimhood, those whose lives become a string of excuses for not reaching their true potential because of what happened in the past.

 Clearing the hurt may mean looking at the situation a new way: your parents weren't experts on the person you were or the person you've grown to be. So their hurtful predictions or observations aren't valid anymore. It can help lighten a lifelong load of pain to tell yourself that your parents did the best they could, that they loved you as much as they were able and that any hurt that they inflicted, whether intentional or not, came from their own dark place of remembered pain.

Emotional clutter can be toxic relationships and the feelings of resentment and inadequacy these inspire. This may be a friendship that has always been problematic or one that has changed over time. 

While healing estrangements can be life-affirming, there are times when distance from someone who causes us pain makes perfect sense.

When I was in my twenties, I had a friend I admired and enjoyed, someone who was quite different from me but, for a time, we celebrated our differences. Then I began to notice that who I was and what I needed were beyond her consideration and, that as much as I wanted to talk this over, she would never listen. She would call me at 3 a.m. to cry over a broken relationship or simply to read me a poem she had just written, unmindful of my need to sleep because I had to get up and go to work in a few hours. As the financial gulf widened between us when her more highly compensated career took off, she made fun of my modest circumstances and asked if I'd like to live in her maid's room and jettison my career in journalism to become her secretary/maid. She was astounded when I turned her offer down and called me ungrateful. We drifted apart, both of us finding life perfectly fine without the other.

In all the years since, I have found freedom, not only in our distance, but also in getting to the point emotionally where I could wish her well and quietly cheer her continuing success without lingering anger or resentments.

Emotional clutter can be agitation over people and events over which you have little, if any, control.

Is it really worth your emotional energy to get upset over something that is unlikely to affect your life -- like who wins or doesn't win the Superbowl or "Dancing With the Stars" or, more recently, the transition of Bruce into Caitlin?

The fact that 10,000 people actually signed an online petition the other day to urge the IOC to rescind Bruce/Caitlin Jenner's Olympic medal is astounding. Most of these people may disapprove of this sports icon embarking on a gender change in the latter years of his life or find the concept and reality of transgender individuals bewildering. But the fact remains that he won his Olympic gold medal fairly, with incredible hard work, and as a man, back in 1976. Nothing will ever change that. And the gender switch, after all the publicity dies down, is her and her family's business, not ours. We can hope that Caitlin and the Kardashian clan will go live happily ever after off the media radar. But there isn't anything we can do about it. So why get upset? If you find yourself riled by the denizens of reality television or sports or, for that matter, by the evening news, stop watching.

Emotional clutter can be old prejudices and beliefs that color your attitudes in a rapidly changing world, weighing you down with anger and fear and resentment.

I've heard vitriol flying in our community clubhouse about gay marriage, all things Obama and racial resentments of all varieties. Tempers and blood pressures rise. But this is a very different world from the one in which we grew up. It is a world, albeit still imperfect and evolving, where one's sexual orientation or the color of one's skin doesn't automatically preclude the possibility of living a life with full rights as a citizen. And while one certainly can take issue with our current president over any number of policies, so much of what pulses through the Internet and impassioned community coffee klatches seems based on pure hatred with a sprinkling of fear because he is different.

This is a world where you can certainly hold religious, political and personal beliefs of value to you and that enhance your ability to live your life with love. There is room for constructive debate and a variety of opinions.

But standing firm with a stubborn "That's the way I was raised..." can be hazardous to your own health and well-being. Carrying so much fury as the world changes around you can hurt you most of all.

Perhaps a question about the free-floating anger and hostility online and otherwise is what purpose does it serve? Is there anything you can do to change a situation or actively embrace a cause? Does it increase your peace of mind? Your happiness? Presidents come and go. There are causes where we can make a difference - and ones that are truly futile and frustrating.

Knowing the difference between these and acting accordingly can be critical to one's emotional well-being.

Emotional clutter can also mean habits like negative thinking and self-talk that is hazardous to your emotional health. 

There is a lot of truth to the saying "Most of us are about as happy as we make up our minds to be." Whatever our external circumstances, we have a choice to greet each day or each challenge with hope and optimism or with grim self-pity.

My lifelong friend Sister Ramona, who will be 80 in October, was showing troubling signs of frailty when I visited her two weeks ago in Northern California for her 60th Jubilee -- the celebration of her 60th anniversary of taking her vows as a nun. I couldn't help but notice how thin she was, how her walk has slowed, how her voice -- as she renewed her vows at the altar -- was barely a whisper. And yet, her eyes lit up and she embraced me with joy when she spotted me in the crowd. And when I asked her how she was -- really -- she smiled and said "Oh, I'm okay. We'll talk. But I can do everything I was meant to do right now." She is still a healer of souls, counseling Stanford University students, and a formidable life force -- getting an award late last year from the Unitarian Universalist community in the Bay Area for her leadership in organizing women for peace. She has made the decision to live fully every day of her life.

That is in stark contrast with a woman in our community I'll call Luella. Luella has a loving husband, a beautiful home and a reasonable amount of financial security. She has raised three successful adult children. 

But, instead of counting her blessings, she ruminates on what isn't right in her life. Her arm hurts. She hates her son's latest girlfriend. Her cat died four years ago and the memory of that loss is too great to ever consider adopting another. And, most of all, she hates Arizona.

"It's ugly and hot and disgusting!" she complains to anyone who will listen. "I hate it here! It's so beige. It's so full of stupid people. We moved here to be closer to our kids and now, with their work and such, we're lucky to see them maybe once a week. And everyone here is so stuck-up. This just sucks big time!"

It's no accident that others in the community keep their contacts and conversations with Luella brief and only occasional. 

Stopping negative thinking and self-talk isn't necessarily easy. For many, it's a well-ingrained habit. But it can help to listen to yourself, to be aware, when it starts once again. Listen for patterns and old catch-phrases that speak of your disinclination to make positive changes. 

Using cognitive behavioral techniques with some of my patients, I used to recommend a rubber band around the wrist, to be snapped at the first sign of a negative thought to signal the need for a change of thoughts in order to stop the downward spiral. 

I remember one patient named Ron who laughed softly and looked at me in total disbelief when I suggested this method of thought-stopping. He didn't say he'd try it. But, over the next few weeks and months, his outlook began to shift. It was a slow change, but a steady one. He began to lose the fear, anxiety and lack of confidence that had stalled his life and career. As we talked one day, he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and showed me his wrist. He was wearing a rubber band.

"I thought this was a crazy idea when you first mentioned it," he said, smiling. "But I decided to try it and it has made me much more aware of my negative thoughts and increased my ability to stop getting into a spiral of pessimism, depression and despair. I can probably do all this without the rubber band now. But I still wear it to remind myself that I have power over my thoughts. I have a choice."

We all have choices. We can choose to keep our emotional lives cluttered with grudges, resentments, pain from the past and negative beliefs about ourselves and others.

Emotional de-cluttering isn't necessarily quick or easy. It can be a slow process. But choosing to do so can be critical to our life satisfaction.

Little by little, we can choose to let go of past hurts and to embrace growth. We can choose to limit our exposure to toxic people and ideas. We can choose to clear the air, let go of resentment and make peace. We can create more space in our emotional lives for loving experiences, for giving to others, for making a difference, for greeting each day with joy.