Friday, April 24, 2015

The Stories That Define Our Lives

My sister Tai, who lives in Seattle, and I were relaxing in my kitchen the other day, winding down from a busy day of medical appointments at the Mayo Clinic Arizona for her life-threatening aneurysm of her abdominal aorta.

We were talking about our childhoods, only briefly shared, as she is ten years younger than I am and spent a large part of her growing up years as the only kid left at home. Still, there was much we did share: the terror and uncertainty of living with a mentally ill, sometimes violent, alcoholic, pill-popping father and a stressed-out, frightened mother. As we grew older, we understood just how damaged our father had been by his own nightmarish childhood. And we also found that, as much as the terror, we remember the laughter and the moments of love.

"He really did love us," Tai said quietly. "As much as he was able. There were times when I could really feel his love...."

And we talked about those times: times when his face would soften and he would tell us how much he loved us, times when illness or misfortune hit us and he was there, worrying over Tai and her broken arm, and gently reassuring her, weeping over me when I was diagnosed with polio at age six, times when he made us laugh with his stories or delighted us with fun adventures.

Later, my husband Bob told me that he was puzzled over our conversation. "He was a monster," he said. "He treated you kids horribly. I really have a hard time hearing you talk about his saintliness."

I saw his point, understanding his anger and outrage. My father was no saint. He could, indeed, be a monster. How does one begin to explain a life story with so many contradictions? For all the horror of our growing up years, we all came away with the feeling that we were dearly loved by both parents and with gratitude for the good times. We don't forget the terrible times, but, as we grow older, the positive moments resonate the most.

"I'm truly amazed," my brother Mike, now raising a five year old daughter and two year old son, both born when he was over 60, told me recently. "I'm amazed that, as damaged as he was, Father didn't kill us, given the stresses of raising small children. And he did make us laugh and we did feel loved..."

This made a critical difference in all our lives.

Not long ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend Sister Ramona, my favorite teacher from high school. As we were discussing a classmate of mine who has struggled for years with mental illness, Sister Ramona said "It always seemed to me that your family was, by far, more dysfunctional than hers. But then I realized the crucial difference: your parents loved you and your siblings so much. I saw it during parent-teacher conferences and when they came to see you in school plays and just during informal talks with them. As flawed or as crazy as they could be, they loved you so much. And what a difference that made!"

And what a difference, in my own life narrative, it has made to have other adults who loved me as well, especially my unforgettable Aunt Molly, Sister Ramona and a very special elementary school teacher, Sister Rita McCormack. Both Sister Ramona and Sister Rita became life-long friends of mine and it's interesting how their insights and memories add immeasurably to the stories I tell myself about my life.

My dear friend Mary recently attended a Catholic charity fundraiser and found herself sitting at a table beside Sister Rita, whom she had not met before, but she knew that I have loved her for more than 60 years. They traded pleasantries, then stories. Sister Rita told Mary about her first memories of me as a shy little girl who would walk around the playground at her side, tightly clinging to the sash of her nun's habit. This underscored my own memories of needing her love and attention so much as I struggled to fit in at school during my recovery from polio and how grateful I was that she was there at that time and place and that she was so loving with Mike and me.

During our kitchen table conversations during the past week, Tai and I talked about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the impact this can have on us and our current relationships.

We tell ourselves stories of a past remembered for its pain or its possibilities.

We can choose to remember primarily the pain, the feelings of powerlessness we had as small children with troubled parents. Or we can focus more on the ways that we were fortunate. We can choose to label ourselves throughout our lives as helpless victims or as survivors. We can be angry or bitter or we can forgive, if not forget, and go on, making our lives very much our own, taking responsibility for our own growth and happiness.

The early difficulties, undeniably, have had an impact on our lives. And sometimes these have been negative. There have been times of depression and devastation when love relationships have foundered. There have been moments of perfectionism as painful as Father's stern insistence that "An A-minus is NOT acceptable!" And there was Mike's long period of commitment-phobia that led him to postpone marriage until he was in his mid-fifties and met Amp, who brought to their loving bond her own understanding and unique insights born of a childhood filled, once again, with both love and pain.

We can be aware of the residual pain of the past while not surrendering to it.

We can tell ourselves stories of survival, of triumphs both large and small, of understanding that comes from hearing the stories of others' lives.

I remember seething, years ago, as I listened to Father talk about his tortured childhood -- his beloved father's death when he was only eight years old, his mother's lies (she told him for a year and his younger sister Molly for four years that their deceased father was on an extended business trip), his mother's alcoholism and her physical and emotional abuse of her son, his being forced to support the family from age nine on with an unwanted, but reasonably successful career as a child actor in silent films. "Your mother was so horrible!" I said at last. "I hate the way she treated you. I'm so sorry it was so hard for you. What a terrible person she was!"

"Oh, no," he replied softly. "She was a wonderful person in so many ways. I guess you had to have been there. She went through some very hard times. But that didn't mean that we weren't loved..."

And I began to understand more about the shades of gray in all our lives. To tell the stories of our lives in terms of absolutes limits the glorious complexities of the individuals we grow to become.

Even those of us growing up in the same family have life stories that are uniquely ours: Tai and Mike both have life stories that have some similarities to mine but with some themes that are all their own. And all of our stories are the truth for our own lives and contribute to a central life theme.

For all my stories of growing up fearful and joyous, excluded and embraced, anxious and hopeful, one theme stands out above all:  I have been dearly loved.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Fifth Anniversary: New Perspectives

Five years ago today, I left my office at UCLA Medical Center for the last time.

I thought I knew what was ahead. I thought I had an accurate picture of life after our jobs were only a memory, after we left Los Angeles for a new life in rural Arizona.

Five years later, life isn't exactly as I imagined then. There have been surprises, disappointments and delightful discoveries.

Five years ago, retirement life, vigor, money, fun and new friendships seemed unlimited. Now, though life is good, connections warm, health enduring and bank account solid, our limitations, both immediate and long-term, are more apparent. We've become more cautious, less expansive, more content with living simply day to day. Meals out, movies, plays, and travel are all rare treats rather than daily reality. And we're not feeling deprived. It doesn't take much to make us happy these days.

Five years ago, we were thrilled at the prospect of living in a resort community. Now I can see it as a mixed blessing -- with increasingly crowded facilities during the winter season when the population here nearly doubles due to the return of the snowbirds from the upper Midwest and Canada. I can also feel the small resentments and uneasy differences between the often more affluent residents who have multiple homes and those of us who live here year around - while realizing that the snowbirds pay dues here 12 months a year, helping to support the amenities that we get to enjoy full-time.

Five years ago, I had visions of reclaiming a bit of youth --  getting skinny and fit, dancing through my days. Now I realize that fitness at 70 doesn't mean reclaiming the weight and body shape of my 25-year-old self and that revisiting youth can mean, at times, reliving junior high with cliques and packs of aging mean girls. But good health, mobility and intellectual vigor are a joy -- even if I can't revisit my passions for ballet and tap, even if I'm lighter and firmer though still undeniably matronly.

Five years ago, I was thrilled at the prospect of  having time to fully re-ignite my neglected writing career. I wanted to publish at least one more book -- and I have. But the best part of getting back to writing has been something I couldn't have imagined five years ago:  this blog and some treasured blogging friends who are bringing so much unexpected joy to my life.

Five years ago, I worried about losing long-time friendships by moving away while also anticipating close new friendships in a new home town. Now, I'm delighted with the resilience of old friendships, relationships that have grown through the challenges of distance and time, and a bit disappointed with the difficulty in making new friends here.

Five years ago, I was excited about the prospect of small town living -- where people knew each other and one had a sense of belonging. And, indeed, that has been part of our new reality in many ways -- from Jasper and Barb at the Florence Library who know our reading tastes and set aside titles they know we would enjoy, the local pharmacist Michelle, who cheerfully greets us by name, the supermarket checkers Sandy and Arlene who ask about our kitten Ollie's recovery from his recent surgeries. But there is a darker side as well to small town life: learning more about people than perhaps you ever wanted to know and malicious gossip that can erode one's sense of belonging. There is, at times, a nagging feeling that, try as one might, one may never really fit in.

Five years ago, I anticipated life being quite different in a new home and a new place. The new house is great. But there is a lot of truth to that saying "Wherever you go, there you are!" We still enjoy the same pursuits, battle the same demons and live semi-reclusively here -- very much as we did in our previous home.

Five years ago, I looked forward to settling in happily with our animal companions Gus, Maggie and Marina for many years to come. I had no idea that five years later, only Maggie would still be alive. Despite the loss of young Marina and elderly Gus and fact that no animal ever replaces another, I treasure the additions to our feline family -- the truculent but loyal Sweet Pea who joined our family in the summer of 2010, gorgeous and loving Hamish who came two years later, and precious little Ollie, our three-legged kitten with a brave heart and magnificent purr, who won my heart last October at a book signing event in California.

Five years ago, I didn't realize how much pleasure I would feel in watching, savoring and, in a variety of ways, sharing in the lives of our younger friends -- Ryan, Mary Kate and Eliza, Carrie and Brian, Sharon and Virginia --  as they reach their prime years. It's wonderful to see them succeeding in their chosen fields, finding special people to love and, in Eliza's case, becoming the loving mother of two beautiful baby girls in a span of 15 months. But the greatest joy of all is in seeing these young people grow from being our dear friends'  babies (in Ryan's case, a bright, quirky nine-year-old Little Brother) into good, caring, responsible adults --  people we're proud to know.

Five years ago, time seemed infinite. Now there is a new sense of limits as I watch those close to me deal with life-threatening health issues. My sister Tai, ten years younger than I, is suddenly facing a dangerous medical crisis. My friends Pat and Joe, who are my age, both are facing unexpected medical challenges. I see warning signs in others: my neighbor Phyllis, my long-time literary agent Susan, my beloved cousin Caron -- all five to seven years older than I am, all previously vigorous, all suddenly fragile. I grieve their loss of health and vitality while anticipating my own decline. I hope that these challenges are some years off for me. But I know, with new clarity, that the blessing of good health is not forever.

There is an upside to bittersweet realizations: I treasure each moment more.

I am realizing that, as the song goes, the best of times is now. I have better health, more money, and more options today than I am likely to have later on. I want to make the most of the next five years because there are no guarantees. Five years ago, retirement fun seemed open-ended. Now I feel the limits more than ever as I live each treasured day with gratitude and love.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Selective Memories: Letting Go of the Pain

I was looking for something else in a garage cabinet when I spotted it: a small box of mementos from a long-ago workplace. For many years, I have remembered this eight-year work experience with a shudder and, more often than not, an avalanche of dark ruminations.

But what I found in the box told a different story.

These mementos painted a much brighter picture of my experiences at this graduate school of psychology. There was an award given by students to the faculty or staff member considered most helpful and inspirational, along with wonderful comments from the students who had nominated me in the first place. There were printed out emails from my boss, telling me how much he valued my efforts and enjoyed working with me, notes from faculty, colleagues and students thanking me for my help. There was enthusiastic feedback from students of the Publications Seminar that I team taught with my boss for several years. There were cards from students for my birthday, or bemoaning my leaving or just because. There were cards and notes from my co-workers given to me on my last day there, many telling me how much I meant to them and how working with me had positively impacted their lives.

How could I have forgotten?

How could I have forgotten that most of the people I knew there gave me nothing but respect and warm friendship? How could I have forgotten how many genuinely nice people there were, some still in touch, some still friends? How could I have let a few bad experiences crowd out the many good ones in my memories of this workplace?

It made me wonder how often many of us find our days darkened by dwelling on negative instead of the positive memories.

How often do we push aside the warm memories of a former love, a previously cherished friendship or a past work experiences in the wake of a painful breakup or one or two really awful conflicts or outcomes? So the pain stays with us and the whisps of memories -- an act of kindness, a sweet understanding, a moment of delicious authenticity -- drift away.

There are times, of course, when remembering bad old times in work, school or relationships can influence life in a positive way, if this leads to behavior or attitude changes, if it makes one pay attention, take less for granted or stop destructive behaviors.

When I remember difficult work situations or mistakes I have made in work and in relationships, I sometimes wince at the vivid memories and wish I had been wiser or more patient or kind. Viewed this way, the old pain can be a learning tool, a way of determining how these dark memories played out in real time at difficult life junctures, what role I played in exacerbating the situation and what such experiences have to teach me about discretion or consideration or just plain common sense.

But ruminating about painful memories, roads not taken and mistakes made in the past and allowing these to dominate your thoughts can overshadow positive experiences, perpetuating the pain and keeping you from resolving those troublesome issues of the past.

So as often as you might remember a certain workplace or love relationship or school experience as unrelentingly negative, take a deep breath, close your eyes and remember: what was good about it? What and who could make you smile? What have you learned or accomplished that might not have been possible had everything gone according to your plans and expectations?

When you stop and think, even the most unpromising workplace or tumultuous relationship may well have contributed greatly to the person you've grown to be.

My own personal ultimate workplace hell on earth was a psychiatric hospital where I toiled briefly in the early 1990's as a research co-ordinator after receiving my non-clinical Ph.D. There was a nasty social worker who made fun of my weight on a daily basis. There were so many pink slips in paychecks every week -- if the hospital's patient census had dropped -- that people were afraid to go pick up their checks. There was back-biting and snarling, little team spirit and a workplace culture so feral that it made our inpatients look like the saner ones among us.

And yet, when I look past all the fear and nastiness and pain, I see a truly pivotal time: a time when I realized that I had a knack for working with patients, when I decided to go back to school for a clinical degree so I could be a psychotherapist. And there were people there... besides the supervisor who fired me because I wouldn't agree to research and write a Master's thesis for her... there were clinicians who encouraged me to join their ranks, a boss who was wonderfully kind, patients who taught me more than they ever knew.

When we let ourselves remember those moments of growth and discovery, of decency and kindness, of roads taken and choices made that suddenly make sense, the laughter between moments of pain...what a difference it can make.

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.