Saturday, March 14, 2015

Re-discovering My Inner Sissy

Despite a shy, somewhat solitary childhood, I don't consider myself a fearful person.

Even though some residual shyness lingers within, I am pretty brave about stepping out of my comfort zone.

I can give a speech to a ballroom full of people without breaking a sweat.

The Today Show once asked me to be the voice of reason between a producer of television action series and a religious-right pastor screaming at each other about the impact of television on children as Matt Lauer kept an uneasy order. No problem.

During my clinical internship, a patient pulled a knife on me. I didn't betray a flicker of fear, though my heart was pounding. I told him to put the knife on the table. He did. I took it and dropped it into a file cabinet beside my chair, pushing the lock. Then I looked him in the eye and asked in a level voice: "Now what was that about?" He smiled sheepishly.

Later on, while working as a therapist in a psychiatric clinic, I confronted a rampaging new patient who was screaming and throwing chairs in the waiting room. I put my hand on her arm and asked her what she was so afraid of. She crumpled into tears in my arms.

But mention the word "snake" and my courage deserts me. I shake and fan myself with trembling hands, aghast that one may be nearby.

I revisited my fearful persona the other day when Bob poked his head into my writing casita. "I just went to take the trash cans out to the curb," he said. "And there is a rattlesnake in our trash enclosure. Between the trash cans."

My heart raced. I buried my face in my hands.

"I'm going to get the hoe and kill it," he said.

"Ohhhhh...." I said, cringing.

I would like to say that I sprang up, putting my fears aside, to help my spouse do battle with the rattlesnake. But no....I stayed rooted at my computer, creeped out in my casita with the door firmly closed. I considered locking it and drawing the drapes just in case Bob came to show me his trophy. But he didn't. He merely asked if I would like to come take a look. I shook my head vigorously.

"I don't want to because I can't then un-see it!" I muttered.

Nodding, he gathered the snake up, put it in the trash can and wheeled it to the curb.

Then, hoe in hand, he search the yard -- back and front -- for more snakes. There were none.

And I stayed holed up in the casita for a few more hours, feeling a little ill, a little faint and very foolish and ashamed of myself. Okay, so a rattlesnake, a viper, is especially scary. Most reasonable people would steer clear of one. But I would have been nearly as creeped out over a harmless snake.

We all have our limits, to be sure.

Pat, my friend since childhood, reassured me via email -- as I sat rooted in the casita -- that lots of people fear snakes. She never did because she had some as pets when she was young. "Is it because you think they're slimy?" she asked. "Or you're afraid they will bite you? Snakes aren't slimy at all. They feel very muscular and leathery...and they usually just want to get away from people."

I shuddered: "I just find them repulsive."

Pat wondered if it might be a behavior I learned from my mother. I thought about it. My mother, who grew up on a Kansas farm, was pretty down to earth and fearless when it came to creatures of all types. And I couldn't have learned my fear from my brother, even when he pulled one of his most memorable pranks ever when we were both in our early teens and still living at home

I was sitting in a chair by the fireplace, happily reading, when I felt something brush against my cheek and slither over my shoulder and down my arm. It was a five foot python -- a huge snake that my brother had just bought with his paper route money and brought home as a pet. I levitated instantly from chair to mantel, screaming myself into an altered state of consciousness and scaring the snake -- whose name was George -- nearly as much as he scared me. He wrapped himself around a leg of the chair and wouldn't let go.

And that was my last sighting of George for his entire tenure at our home. I refused to go near his cage at the back of the yard, even though my sister Tai, ten years younger, would happily tag along after Michael and watch as he fed live mice and rats to George. Just the thought of that snake, not to mention his feedings, filled me with revulsion.

But I obviously had this fear before... or Michael would never have introduced his pet to me in quite that way.

I'm just hard-wired to dislike snakes.

There are a few other contenders -- like the lizards dashing across my path most days as I walk from our house to my casita or the skunks who wander through our yard at night on their way to the golf course across the street. Have you ever noticed how skunks undulate as they walk? Disgusting!

But snakes -- only snakes -- cause me to melt down to utter helplessness.

Pat told me that she overcame her fear of spiders by asking the science teacher at the school (where both were teaching) to tell her more about them and, the more she learned, the less afraid she became.

I don't want to learn more about rattlesnakes. I just want to avoid them.

Which is a trick here in the Arizona desert.

Snakes, lizards and skunks, oh my! They are native to this little area of paradise.

To be honest, though, this was the first rattlesnake we've seen on our property in our five years here. So it isn't a constant threat.

And maybe an occasional melt-down over a snake is okay.

Maybe letting my inner sissy loose over something like a snake lets me be stoic in the face of things more out of my control but of deep concern, those bigger, scarier things like the chaos in Washington, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the threats of nuclear war or global warming...or, more immediately, the life-changing and life-threatening illnesses we see in neighbors all around us in our over-55 community.

Maybe the more minor, if heart-fluttering, fears are just a reminder that, as brave as we think we are about most things in our adult lives, there are areas of vulnerability.

"I'm sorry I was such a sissy about the snake," I told Bob later. "I'm sorry I wasn't more helpful."

He grinned. "It's okay," he said. "No reason to be ashamed. I couldn't bear the thought of getting up in front of a big crowd of people to make a speech..."

We all have our fears..and our areas of strength, our brave selves and our inner sissies. Being in touch with both is, at once, reassuring and humbling.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Ollie's Ordeal -- and His Lesson in Resilience

Since the moment he first tugged my heartstrings at last October's Catoberfest event in California, little Ollie has been a very special kitten - the disabled kitten we couldn't leave behind, the little black cat with a cruel beginning: someone chopped off most of his right rear leg and threw him in a trashcan soon after birth. His history was sad, but his spirit undaunted as he dashed around his cage at Catoberfest, playful and filled with joy.

Bob and I drove from Arizona the next week to pick him up in Los Angeles and make him part of our family.

Ollie soon after his arrival 

His limitations -- a large hernia and a missing
lower right rear leg -- didn't slow him down

But we knew that he would have to have two -- maybe three surgeries -- at the beginning of the New Year, once he was strong enough and weighed five pounds. By mid-January, the need was urgent: his hernia was becoming ever larger.  

On January 20, he had two surgical procedures: he was neutered and had hernia repair surgery. He was home the same day and seemed less distressed by the surgeries than he was with the Elizabethan collar aka "The Cone of Shame."

                                            Ollie's hernia repair surgery....


                                              ..... wearing his "Cone of Shame"

Although we had been told when we adopted him and also by our vet that the stump of his right hind leg might have to be amputated someday, we hoped that wouldn't be necessary.  We hated the idea of him having to endure more pain. We hoped against hope that he would be fine without it.

But two weeks into his recovery from his surgeries, sudden problems arose with the remnant of his leg: it kept dislocating at the hip, prompting howls of pain, multiple times a day. He would hobble over to me with pleading eyes. I would pick him up and massage the joint back into place as he trembled in my arms. We took him back to the vet. She shook her head. "This needs to come off," she said.

On February 9, he went back for surgery. "Is this the amputation?" a technician asked as Bob and I soothed Ollie in the waiting room. I couldn't help but wince. "This is Oliver," I said. "And, yes, he is amputation..."

He was in the hospital overnight and then Bob picked him up. He had a rough first day at home, woozy on painkilling drugs and with a wound that took one's breath away.


But by the second day, he was up and about, happy to be home, to enjoy his normal pursuits...

                                          Questioning authority: "This thing again???"

                                      Tearing up newspapers with his buddy Hammie

                                       Wrestling with Hammie (who was very gentle)

                                     Waiting for me to come in from my writing casita


                                        Re-discovering his favorite toy: the laser


                                      And the thrill of the chase....

                                     And, of course, hugs, lots of hugs!

Through it all, full of stitches both external and internal, he was a bundle of energy, a delightful feline companion, an inspiration.

Although he must have been in pain, he never complained. He simply lived as he always has: with enthusiasm and joy, doing what he loved most, relishing each day.

It was all a lesson in resilience -- to live life to the fullest, to play through the pain, to go on as if the limitations didn't exist.

And there is no limit to the joy this brave and spirited little kitten is bringing to our home!


Monday, February 2, 2015

We've Come a Long Way...Or Have We?

By all measures, she lived an extraordinary life.

She was a respected neuroscientist who spent ten years working in research at Yale Medical School and who established the neurophysiology department at the Royal Northshore Hospital in Sydney, Australia.

And when she found that she was being paid less than her male colleagues at Yale and that this was not negotiable, she decided to try writing to make a little extra money. Her first novel sold well and became a major motion picture. Her second novel was an international blockbuster and became the basis of the most-viewed television mini-series of all time. She went on to write 23 more well-reviewed and popular novels.

On a personal level, she overcame childhood emotional abuse to become a successful, warm and loving person, a supportive friend and mentor to several generations of writers and is survived by her loving husband of more than thirty years.

This brilliant, accomplished woman, of course, was Colleen McCullough, best known as the author of "The Thorn Birds", who died this past week at the age of 77.

Colleen McCullough  1937-2015

Because of her achievements, her death was international news.

What also has become international news is the first paragraph of an obituary that ran in The Australian, a national newspaper in her native land:

"Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview she said "I've never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men."

This emphasis on her looks, on her weight and on her ability to attract men, the implication that warmth and wit is something of a surprise in someone plain and overweight, has unleashed a furor as people around the world comment and tweet about society's inclination to over-emphasize how a woman looks instead what she does.

Too often, media coverage downplays real achievements and dwells on physical measurements, keeping us breathlessly up to date on curvy young women of minimal talent and scant accomplishment -- the Kardashian clan and Paris Hilton come to mind -- and sports commentators are still all too likely to mention a female athlete's looks as well as her abilities. The entertainment conglomerates' reach into the publishing world has meant that there is more pressure now on female authors to look glamorous. Those who do are on the covers or the back flap of their books. Those who don't stay invisible or get pressure to enhance their looks. Olivia Goldsmith, the author of a number of novels, including "The First Wives Club", claimed that her publisher was putting pressure on her to have a facelift, wondering if Norman Mailer or John Updike ever received such directives. She finally gave in, had the surgery and died from complications.

But times are changing,...aren't they?

More women than men are graduating from college and professional schools. We're seeing more women in the sciences, in the professions, as corporate CEOs. Help Wanted ads no longer differentiate between jobs available to men and those for women. There are world leaders who are female.  It's possible -- though not, for many reasons, a certainty -- that our next President of the United States could be a woman.

But Hillary has had her own struggles over the years both as First Lady and as a presidential candidate -- with unkind media ruminations about her pear shape and her pantsuits, about the likability factor, about whether she is too blonde or not blonde enough, and about whether she is too old (though she will be the same age in 2016 that Ronald Reagan was in 1980).

But I digress.

One would think that in death, when someone writes about a well-known person's life, that the person's accomplishments would be highlighted and looks irrelevant. That's how it is for males. But females, even in death, are too often seen through the prism of lookism and, in some instances, their fit with the stereotypical female role.

That was evident two years ago in obituaries for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill who, among many other professional accomplishments, invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites in orbit. She is believed to have been the only female rocket scientist in the 1940's when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite. In the 1980's, she developed the rocket engine for NASA's space shuttle. She won a number of awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, presented to her by President Obama in 2011.

Yet when she died two years later, one obituary started off with "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took years off from work to raise her three children..." Even her New York Times obituary emphasized her domestic achievements: "She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off work to raise three children."

Would a male rocket scientist ever be described similarly?

This isn't to say that a balanced life, well-raised children, a solid marriage and culinary skills aren't important. At the end of one's life, perhaps these are the things that matter most. Had she been able to read these accounts in advance, Yvonne Brill might have approved, valuing herself as a loving wife and mother first and foremost. She certainly would have been delighted to read her son's description of her as "the world's best mom".

But still, when a high achiever's life is summarized in the media, why is it that women are viewed so differently? And why does it sound so funny to hear a man described in the same way?

One encouraging sign that times are, indeed, changing have been the male voices joining the international outrage over Colleen McCullough's obituary, wondering why her brilliant mind rather than her ample body couldn't be emphasized and riffing on obituary leads for male historic figures who weren't handsome like William Shakespeare ("Though thin of nose and definitely balding....") or Winston Churchill ("He was a bit of a fat, ugly bloke but nevertheless did quite well for himself...") and wondering why we never expected Jonas Salk to look like Brad Pitt.

It's possible that Colleen McCullough, whose sense of humor was both earthy and expansive, might be amused by all the furor. She might well include her physical traits in a light-hearted self description.


But it's one thing when she herself would allude casually and humorously to her physical being and quite another when someone else makes her appearance the definitive thing about her.

It all goes to show that, while women have come a long way in the past 50 years or so, we still have a way to go.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Embracing What Is

"How are you -- really?"

The voice of our young friend Ryan was soft and caring during his morning phone call to Bob this morning.

They've come a long way together, Bob and Ryan. They met in the Big Brothers program when Ryan was a fun, quirky nine-year-old who had something major in common with Bob: temporal lobe epilepsy. But soon they discovered many more interests in common and, over the years, Ryan became much more than a Little Brother. He became a dear friend and, in a very real sense, a surrogate son for us. He is now a 31-year-old psychotherapist/social worker in Los Angeles who calls Bob several times a week on his way to work.

So his question...and Bob's answer...go well beyond the usual "How are you?-I'm fine." routine.

"Sometimes I struggle," Bob told him. "This aging thing entails so many losses. For me, it hasn't been any one catastrophic loss, but a series of things, gradually falling away. I used to love running. But no matter how much I train and hope, that's not a possibility anymore. I love to learn. I'm studying quantum mechanics, but am realizing that some of it is beyond me. There are things I don't and will never understand. So much of my old life seems to be slipping away..."

"But certainly as some things slip away, other things replace these?" Ryan's response was half question, half hopeful statement.

"Only the acceptance of what is," Bob said. "And joy in what's still possible."

It's true.

As time goes on, we do lose vestiges of our lives in youth and middle age. As much as possible, we try to find substitutes.

When we can no longer run, we walk. When we can no longer dance vigorously, we dance at a slower pace, then with our arms. When arthritic hands make playing a favorite musical instrument impossible, love of music can still fill our hearts. My friend actor Maurice Sherbanee, who is 84, can no longer play his beloved guitar, but he has started composing music that is played by younger guitarists around the globe. Composing music for others to play makes him feel vibrantly alive and connected. The You Tube video below features his composition "The Streets of Rio."

And so we go on. I always envisioned myself dancing well into old age, but didn't make allowances during those long ago daydreams for arthritic knees and feet. So I walk to music and am working on making a habit of Tai Chi, hoping to achieve better balance that will preclude serious falls. And I love to watch dance performances, dancing in my heart along with the performers. I love remembering those times when Bob and I greeted the dawn by running five miles through the hills of Glendale, CA and celebrated several New Year's Days by running in Griffith Park with our older friend Lou, a recovering alcoholic, who would grin as he puffed along and say "Not bad for an old drunk, am I?" I love remembering dance performances and the classes where ballet, tap, jazz and musical theatre dance seemed to be so effortless and joyous.

 I smile at the memories and am grateful for what remains: I can walk and swim and celebrate the joy of movement.

There comes a time when life narrows down in its possibilities. I see it in some neighbors now: those who can no longer walk with ease or at all, those whose minds and memories are fading, those who live in pain and with catastrophic illnesses. And yet I also see quiet acceptance, even celebrations of what is.

There is gratitude for life itself. His memories are fading, his independence long gone, my friend John still loves to sit on his patio, basking in sunshine and the smiles and waves of passersby. She lives with the pain of advanced cancer and dialysis treatments for kidney failure, but my friend Phyllis still welcomes each day as an opportunity to talk with friends and family and to cuddle her dogs Mollie and Gizmo. 

And so, despite the complexities of answering the question "How are you?" from someone dear, more often than not, the fact that we are living, enjoying another day of sunshine or healing rain or snow that makes home seem cozier than ever, is cause for quiet celebration.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Perfectly Imperfect Holidays

The realization hit as I was visiting my brother Mike and his family last week when they were at their Los Angeles home briefly before returning to their home base in Thailand for the holidays: I pile stress on myself with expectations that a holiday must be as perfect as possible.

Mike and I decided to celebrate Christmas together this past Wednesday and a big part of this was preparing a holiday meal. I expected we would do the shopping a day or so before. But Mike was comfortable waiting until Wednesday morning.

What?? I was quietly aghast.

Memories of Christmases past flooded back: the times I had cooked the turkey the weekend before Christmas so that everything would be perfect and ready to serve mid-day so that Aunt Molly wouldn't have to drive home in the dark. Even after Aunt Molly's death, I tended to have the turkey in the oven in the early morning hours. Was it even possible to properly roast a turkey with this late start? I was worried.

But Mike was confident as he, his five-year-old daughter Maggie and I hit the local market. He found a lovely fresh turkey. We gathered up all the ingredients for my signature dressing plus potatoes and fresh vegetables. The turkey was in the oven by noon and soon the house was filled with the lovely smells of a holiday dinner in the making.

Mike and I relaxing as the turkey roasts:
A new concept for me!

Maggie watched and helped as I made the dressing, noting and exhaulting in each step, asking "Is it done yet?" all along the way, but hanging in there eagerly to the end.

Finally, it was done. We wrapped the dressing and put it in the refrigerator, to be warmed again closer to the time we would be serving dinner.

By 6 p.m., all was ready.

But some of the guests were late, caught in hideous West Los Angeles holiday traffic. Mike and Amp's two year old son Henry, sick with the flu, was screaming himself to sleep. Finally, he was silent in feverish slumber. His exhausted mother Amp announced that she was going to walk a block to the versateller and disappeared for several hours -- doing a last bit of Christmas shopping and catching her breath after a trying day and night with an ailing and cranky child.

Mike surveyed the perfectly browned turkey, cooling on the counter, and smiled. "Maybe we ought to make sure it's okay," he said, slicing off bits of white and dark meat and removing a wing. We sat at the table, sampling, satisfied with our work. 

The mashed potatoes and dressing were cooling in their serving dishes. The gravy was ready for reheating in a pan on the stove. The turkey was rapidly cooling -- and looking a bit diminished as Mike and I continued to nibble. Maggie was intent on playing with her dolls and doll house, having enlisted the first arriving guest Nora to play out her fantasy scenario with her.

The clock ticked on. Dinner cooled. The turkey looked shopworn. My brows furrowed with worry. "Maybe we ought to start reheating everything...." I said, getting up and moving toward the stove. My brother smiled.

"Just relax," he said. "People will eat when they get here, when they want to. It doesn't have to be or look perfect."

I sat down and took a deep breath. He was right. It was his home and his party and I needed to let go of my desire to have everything just so.

Some guests arrived. Some sat down at the table and filled their plates. Others dawdled, talking, in the family room. Another joined Maggie and Nora in play. And Amp eventually returned with presents and good cheer, nibbling bits of turkey and dressing as she visited with guests. Even Henry woke up feeling like celebrating and smiling broadly when family friend Viviene gave him a teddy bear that recited "The Night Before Christmas."

It was lovely. There was good conversation, thoughtful gifts, much savoring of food and many hugs. No one seemed to mind that some of the food was lukewarm or that dinner was more of a group graze than a formal sit down affair. Comfort and good cheer were in the air.

After the graze: Mike, Maggie, me, Vivo, Nora

Perfectly imperfect father-daughter pose.

Maggie thanks Vivo for a perfect gift

When I returned home to Arizona the next day, Bob had put up our Christmas tree but left the decorating to me because he knows how much I enjoy that. I immediately found the box of ornaments -- all hand made by his parents in the eighties -- and put them on the tree, preoccupied by loving memories of his dear mother, gone for more than 25 years now. 

Then I went to the bedroom to unpack. Minutes later, I returned to a chaotic scene: our male cats Hammie and Ollie had climbed into the tree and were wrestling with each other and seizing ornaments in their teeth and flinging them down. The tree skirt --also made by Bob's mother -- was dragged into the middle of the living room and was bunched up with chewed up newspapers. They had, indeed, been busy in my brief absence.

I shouted at both of them and they scampered out of the tree, shaking more ornaments down. I put ornaments and the tree skirt back in place. I cleaned up the shredded newspaper. All was well.

Until an hour later. I returned to the living room and saw the tree shaking. Hammie and Ollie were at it again, this time wrestling under the tree and snagging the less valuable ornaments (purchased rather than those made by Bob's parents) that I always put on the lower branches. 

And so it has continued... despite drenchings from our mister and stern admonitions. 

                                               A very Ollie Christmas

Where's Ollie??? Look for the eyes...

Feline re-arrangements for an imperfect tree

Hammie Stripping the Tree

Ollie at Rest on Relocated Tree Skirt

I'm taking another deep breath and am beginning to see the living room not as a chaotic mess, but as a family decorating project. Perhaps the traveling tree skirt and widely spread ornaments are my cats' contribution to holiday decor and cheer. And wrestling cats in the tree add a novel twist to our traditional holiday celebration.

Holiday perfection is an elusive and stressful goal. Being content and at peace with what is can make for a much happier holiday...

                                         Whether Christmas is a work day, as it is for
                                         Mike, now back in Bangkok, taking a break at 
                                        his hospital's cafe

Whether it's embracing or tussling with those we love 

Whether or not you're on key, feeling the
pleasure of caroling with friends...

No matter how perfect or perfectly imperfect your holidays may be, here's wishing you love, laughter, happy feasting, fun conversations and and a wealth of good will!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Seasonal Stress Tips

This year, the first signs of the holiday season edged ever closer to Halloween, often appearing in early November. This phenomenon of ever-earlier holiday decor seems to be world-wide. Friko, one of my favorite bloggers, noted it in her area of the UK. And my brother Mike, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand (a country that is predominantly Buddhist, but that celebrates Christmas enthusiastically anyway), snapped a cell phone picture of the holiday decor already evident at his local mall a week ago.


Christmas decor comes early to Bangkok, too!

For many of us, these first signs of the holidays bring not comfort and joy, but feelings of stress as we imagine the whole holiday scenario: the endless to-do lists, the shopping, the cooking, the planning, the fraught family get-togethers, the dreams of a Hallmark Christmas rudely interrupted by stark reality, coping with life changes while observing long-held traditions, the anxiety, the depression, the feeling of being overwhelmed.

As another holiday season is relentlessly upon us, what can we do to decrease this stress and increase our joy this time around?

If you're feeling overwhelmed.  Pare that daunting to-do list down a bit. Cut corners for your own mental health. Even small changes can made a difference. Cut a few items from your holiday menu and concentrate on the ones you and your family enjoy most. Don't make ten varieties of cookies when you know which two the grandkids love. Turn a party into a potluck. People love to share their specialties so make a party of sharing favorite cookies or holiday treats or seasonal entrees. It cuts your work and brings more variety and fun to the gathering. If you're the designated provider of the traditional family feast this year, don't be ashamed to ask for help. Your mother or mother-in-law may be happy to lend her expertise or siblings may be willing to help. If you are preparing some family favorites -- like pies and some side dishes -- that can be made in advance, this collaborative effort can become a separate, fun and memorable holiday celebration -- and maybe a new tradition!

Making adjustments to your meal timelines can also help when family feasts start to get complicated. When, in my late twenties, I first began hosting family holiday meals, I cooked and served the meal the same day. As years went by and Aunt Molly stopped driving at night (and yet didn't want to stay over because of her sickly cat at home), I re-scheduled our holiday feast for mid-day. And I would roast the turkey the weekend before, carving the meat and freezing it, as well as preparing and freezing some side dishes. Then on the holiday, I would re-heat the frozen items and make whatever was best fresh and have the meal easily on the table by noon. The scenario shifted again as Aunt Molly became housebound. Her kitchen was tiny and she didn't like us using it much. So we would transport Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in coolers -- to be briefly reheated if necessary -- and enjoy it at her home. Again, because I was working long hours up to the holiday, I would prepare as much of the meal as possible the weekend before and freeze it. Though I initially feared that this would interfere with the taste and quality of the food, no one ever complained. We simply enjoyed the food -- and each other. 

If you're feeling that your life is totally interrupted. Even in the midst of busy holiday preparations and celebrations, you'll feel better if you can keep up some of your normal daily routine. Make exercise a priority. It will not only keep life feeling normal, but will also help protect you from runaway holiday weight gain! Make time to see friends briefly, to meditate, to journal or to pray. Make a trip to the library instead of the mall. Remember an older friend or relative whose life has slowed down and who may be feeling lonely in the busyness of the holiday season. Schedule time just for you -- and for you and your significant other -- to be alone, to decompress, to relax in between the celebrations.

If you're feeling shopping and/or budget challenged. Besides skipping the mall and shopping online, you might also consider making simple gifts this year or agreeing with family to draw names instead of buying gifts for everyone in the family or making the decision as a family to give gifts only to the young children. You might decide to give your adult children family heirlooms as gifts this year. Or get creative in a new way and make a scrapbook or a video of family members' lives in pictures. That can feel more personal and loving than a store-bought gift. 

When I wasn't sure what to give my niece Maggie for her 5th birthday recently and also worried about the cost of shipping a gift all the way to Bangkok, I decided to make a music video of her life so far. made it easy. And my brother told me that the family was so moved, they passed a Kleenex box around the circle of their immediate family, Thai in-laws and family friend Nora who was visiting from the U.S. Later, Nora told me that of all the gifts Maggie received that day, the movie of her life was her favorite. Putting it together didn't cost a dime. And the time and effort it took to gather all the digital photos together was a true labor of love that warmed my heart as well.

If you're dreading a family dinner/donnybrook. Accept the fact that it's not in your power to transform a family holiday into a Hallmark event. Then look for ways to mitigate disasters. If alcohol fuels family fights, try serving non-alcoholic, but festive drinks, letting people know in advance that the holiday at your place will be alcohol-free with no BYOB as an experiment this year. Let some key family members know that you're hoping people can simply enjoy the holiday and being together without dredging up past feuds and that you won't be jumping in to referee this time around. Plan some distracting activities -- watching a favorite holiday movie together, playing games or taking an after-dinner walk together as distractions that might help to derail some of family conflicts.

 It may also help to give family members an escape route --- the freedom to make excuses (without any guilting or questioning from you or the rest of the family) to stay just a little while, visiting briefly and leaving before any of the conversation becomes heated. 

But if the day degenerates into hopeless squabbles, it may be the way at least some of your family likes to mark the holidays. Stand back. Take a deep breath. Take the dog out for a walk and enjoy the quiet. And next year perhaps you can plan to be a guest at some other family member's house -- and make a brief appearance, escaping in advance of the donnybrook.  Another tip: this year or next, spend one of the holidays with someone else's family.  It can be much more relaxing and enjoyable to be a guest and to be part of a whole different family dynamic -- just for a change.

If you're finding the celebration all work and no fun.  When you're the hostess, the holiday go-to person, the designated party planner, the holidays can, indeed, seem more work than fun. Whether you're organizing the festivities at home, at work or both, schedule a treat for yourself somewhere in the timeline. Plan an hour, an afternoon or even a spa day with a good friend during or right after the holidays. My friend Mary lives for Black Friday. I find the prospect of shopping on that day horrifying. But, somehow, when we do it together, it is an incredible pleasure -- and has become a tradition for us. Whether you take a brief holiday hiatus to relax or plan a day doing exactly what you want to do the day after a major event, you'll have something to anticipate that may go a long way toward alleviating some of the stress of the season

Monday, November 10, 2014

Oliver's Tale

He was tiny. He was different. He was intriguing.

I first caught a glimpse of him while taking a short break from signing copies of my book "Purr Therapy" at the Santa Clarita, CA Catoberfest celebration of cats and the cat rescue organization Forgotten Angels.

He was a little black kitten, significantly separated from the other Forgotten Angels adoptable kittens and cats. The organization, after all, considered him a long-shot for adoption.

   First glimpse: Playing in his litter box at Catoberfest in Santa Clarita, CA

He was black, not a popular color for rescue cats. But his differences from the others were much more significant than color. This little kitten had only three legs, a large hernia and a near tragic back story: he was thrown into a trash can, simply discarded, soon after birth. If not for a passerby who heard his cries coming from a curb-side trash can, he certainly would not have survived. 

Unable to imagine a greater evil than discarding a defenseless newborn kitten into the trash, rescue volunteers assumed that he was born without his right rear leg. But somewhat later, a veterinarian pointed out the bone protruding from the short stump and said that it looked like someone had cut off his leg in a senseless act of cruelty.

For someone with such a traumatic beginning, this little kitten -- named Herbie (the love bug) by rescuers -- was amazingly cheerful, outgoing and loving. He responded warmly to people, purring as soon as anyone looked at him, cuddling closely with anyone willing to hold him. I couldn't believe how this little animal loved people -- despite everything someone had done to him so early in life.


                  Playing with a Forgotten Angels volunteer at Catoberfest

I watched as he rolled and played joyously in his litter box, while the Forgotten Angels volunteer sitting by his cage kept trying to re-direct him to a toy filled little bed on the other side of the cage. "Playing in the litterbox!" she scolded. "You have enough strikes against you already, sweetheart! Can't you just sit nicely in your little bed and look pretty?"

But he dashed around, exuberant, full of life, showing off, spilling litter with every move. 

As I headed back to my book-signing area, I hoped and prayed that someone would adopt him before my next break.

But no one did. Plenty of people stopped to look at him and to read his heart-rending story posted atop his cage. But no one wanted a kitten who was crippled and who needed three surgeries in the near future.

I sent Bob an email about this captivating little cat. He wrote back that he felt haunted by the story of this poor little guy and wondered if we might think of offering him a forever home.

I set my phone down and started talking with people about "Purr Therapy" and listening to their stories of the cats they loved -- and the ones they had loved and lost. Dr. Tracy McFarland, my all time favorite vet who rescued our beloved, late Timmy and Gus when they were tiny kittens sixteen years ago and entrusted them to us, joined me at the signing, autographing copies of the book (which is dedicated to her) for many at Catoberfest who were patients and who considered Dr. Tracy by far the greater celebrity present.

"My husband and I are emailing each other about Herbie," I whispered. She smiled and put her arm around me. 

"He's a wonderful kitten, very, very special," she said. "And he couldn't go to a better home. Are you really going to take him home to Arizona with you?"

Bob and I discussed the logistics via email. I had to come back to Santa Clarita the next weekend for another Barnes and Noble signing. I had planned to fly by myself....but we took a deep collective breath and I changed my plans. Bob and I drove back four days later and, after the signing was finished, we traveled to the high desert town of Palmdale to pick up this new addition to our family.

He was with a bunch of other cats at a local PetSmart, snuggled with his little friend Kirby, a beautiful gray and white kitten who had become his special buddy in his foster home. Bob and I paused, torn, at the enclosure. Should we take them both? That would make five cats. It seemed to be tipping the balance into crazy cat collecting.

"Oh, my God, Kirby is so cute!" Bob said, looking through the glass. "But he's so beautiful and so perfect, someone will adopt him soon for sure. Poor little Herbie doesn't have the same chance...."

Vicki, a Forgotten Angels volunteer, looked a little tearful as she held our new kitten. "It's so hard to say goodbye to this one," she said. "He is such a love but we're so thrilled he has a home."

                         Saying "Goodbye" to Vicki -- and then off to Arizona!                        

We put Herbie in a carrier and took him to our car where a fully-equipped kennel with bed, food and water and a litter box, awaited him for the nine-hour journey.

The long car trip has never been such a pleasure. Though he cried briefly, the kitten soon relaxed and rejoiced, purring loudly and cuddling in my arms and then Bob's as we took turns driving. The miles flew by.

Somewhere before the Arizona border, Bob decided that Herbie was too close to Hammie, the name of our youngest adult cat. He likes to have a distinct name for each cat so that they will come (usually) when called. We decided to name this one Oliver or Ollie. 

Everything was set -- or so we thought. Previous kitten introductions have been easy, thanks to the sweetness of our alpha cat Gus, who has embraced every kitten coming into the house and mandated quick acceptance by the others. But Gus had died at age 16 this summer and our three surviving cats have spent the months since both grieving his loss and jockeying for position in the household. Bringing a handicapped kitten into the mix didn't improve anyone's mood. 

         Ollie is undaunted by his limitations - a missing leg and a large hernia

To our surprise, our testy young female cat SweetPea was the first to befriend Oliver after his obligatory several sequestered days, the mutual sniffing under the door and the growlings of various intensities. Ollie was delighted to have a friend, albeit one with definite mood swings. When she tired of his playing, she would bop him on the head. He would roll over, purring and simply wait for her irritation to pass.

                                                              SweetPea and Oliver

But Maggie and Hammie were less easily convinced that Oliver was a welcome addition to the family.

Maggie, weary of kittens and wanting to live in peace and quiet, took up residence in the linen closet, glaring out through a crack in the door. 

Hammie, our pampered and adored baby, had a more extreme reaction: hiding in dark corners, running from the kitten, wailing loudly when visitors paid more attention to Oliver than to him, refusing to let me touch him if I had just held the kitten, throwing up prodigiously all over my laptop computer, jumping up and ripping the Sunday New York Times from my hands, shredding the paper and nipping me. He started to limp (suspiciously similar to Oliver's gait), stopped eating and crawled under the bed for hours at a time. We rushed him to his vet who could find absolutely nothing wrong with him and no reason he should be limping, though she ran a battery of tests. We started calling the episode "Hammie's $455 Hissy Fit."

Then gradually, the tensions eased. Maggie napped on the bed with Ollie nearby. 

                                                            Maggie and Ollie

Hammie stopped growling and started to play. When I woke up in the middle of the night recently, I was stunned to see all four cats cuddled at the end of the bed -- and Hammie and Ollie were sleeping entwined with each other.

                                                Oliver and Hamish (Hammie)

Through it all, Ollie has adjusted joyfully to his new home, his wonderfully optimistic, easy-going temperament serving both him and us well. When he was rejected by another cat, he would simply back down and play by himself or seek cuddling from us. If you look at him, if you touch him, he purrs. He happily welcomes visitors to our home. And we wonder if we have another potential therapy cat in this sweet kitten who lives with such joy, exuberance and love.
                                             Helping Bob with his stretches

                                                  Such a loving kitten!
                                                 Secure in his forever home

However he grows up, he is ours and we are his. We'll manage his expensive surgeries to repair his large umbilical hernia and to remove the stump of his right rear leg with the exposed bone. We're weathering the high drama of cat introductions that seems to be winding down. And we have fallen hopelessly in love with a little kitten whose spirit could not be crushed by human cruelty.

Someone's trash has become our latest treasure.