Friday, December 31, 2010


Is there a long-lasting grudge or estrangement between you and someone you once loved?

Maybe it's a family member. Or a long-time friend. Or a co-worker with whom you have differed.

Today may be a perfect time -- end of the old year, beginning of the new -- to reach out and start to heal the hurt feelings or anger or cool distance between you.

What's holding you back? Feeling you've been wronged and are owed an apology? Start the healing by making the first gesture toward reconciliation. Maybe what drove you apart happened so long ago, who was wronged doesn't much matter anymore.  Maybe the pain of losing this person in your daily life supersedes the pain that caused the estrangement. Maybe the burden of maintaining distance has become an obstacle to your own happiness and peace.

Today is a perfect time to take a step toward peace.

In many instances, it's so much harder to say "I love you" or "I miss you" than it is to express angry righteousness or blame.  In therapy, clients are most likely to break into tears when expressing love. The tears mean so many things -- relief, grief over lost time, tenderness, joy.  

It's very hard to say "I'm sorry" and the old chestnut about "Love means never having to say you're sorry" is so wrong.  Being the first to say "I'm sorry" is loving and brave.  It's much easier to sit back and wait for another to make everything right again. But you can wait forever.

So do the brave and loving thing today.  It may be more personally rewarding than you can imagine -- and a great way to wrap up this year and start the new on a positive note of reconciliation, hope and peace.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Holiday Depression: Why It Happens and What to Do About It

It's as predictable as Black Friday: as soon as holiday decorations appear in the mall and carols are piped over the sound system at the gym, Bob's mood plummets for reasons he can't really explain except to say that he finds the holidays depressing.

Some people, like Sally. have specific reasons for holiday melancholia: this will be the first Christmas without her beloved mother who passed away this past summer.  And Maureen finds the holidays depressing "because they never measure up to my expectations and fantasies. I imagine these warm and wonderful family times together and then either people don't show up or do show up and act tortured for having to spend some time together or actually fight and ruin everything. Why do I keep forgetting all this reality and keep expecting things to be different this year? But every year, I do...and I'm always disappointed."

If any of this sounds familiar to you, what can you do?

Try positive self-talk.  If you keep telling yourself "I hate the holidays" or "I'm always disappointed with family celebrations." try altering this pattern with a new perspective.  Instead, try telling yourself: "This year I'm keeping myself open to a pleasant surprise" or "I enjoy the decorations and music" or "However my family reacts to the holidays, I will enjoy myself."  Telling yourself that this holiday season is special and that your enjoyment is not dependent on anyone else's frees you to get into the spirit of the season whatever dark vibes may be swirling around you.

Take time to grieve,  find joy in remembering past holidays and create new traditions.  Especially if this holiday season is your first without a loved one, it's normal to feel grief and longing and to remember the good times you once shared with this person.  Letting yourself feel the grief is part of the process of letting go to what was and letting yourself be warmed by loving memories is an important part of recapturing the joy of the season.  Creating new traditions for yourself can help a great deal. My friend Chuck had two horrific losses during the holidays some years back: in 1987, his only sibling, his brother Fred, was killed in a helicopter accident only a few days before Christmas. Three years later, his mother suffered a fatal heart attack as they drove to Mass on Christmas Eve.  He can't help but remember this pain as the holidays approach. But he has reclaimed joy by making Christmas a celebration with friends some years and traveling to warm, tropical destinations other years -- and in each location, either home or the tropics -- he finds joy both in memories and in shared experiences with his life partner David and special friends. And my friend Carol, whose mother died of a heart attack during Christmas Eve services two years ago, is looking forward to holidays in a whole new setting: at her brother's new home in the red rock canyons of Sedona, AZ where she'll celebrate the holidays with her new grandson.

Revise your expectations about family festivities.   Think realistically about last year. Is there any chance that anyone in last year's family fiasco will change?  Given the personalities involved, is there anything that can be done to decrease friction? Meet in a neutral place -- like another relative's or a restaurant? Divide your holiday into a "must-do" family get-together and an anticipated celebration with people -- perhaps some family, perhaps dear friends -- who make your spirits soar? Whatever the outcome of either, tell yourself that you're responsible for your own happy holiday, as are all the people attending your festivities. 

You can make a choice when holidays come around: to follow the usual pattern of misery and strife or to have a different kind of holiday this year -- one where you choose to be happy and to find joy in your own way no matter what is roiling around you. So what if family members don't show up or are determined to have as rotten a holiday as usual with each other? So what if circumstances dictate more modest celebrations than in years past? You can find joy in the music, in the lights, in a spirit in the air as you walk down the street. You can find joy in seeking the company of people who love the holidays.
You can find joy in celebrating who you are now and remembering the best holidays of your past, not with sadness, but with gratitude for the richness of your life experience. You can find joy in this season.  It's your choice!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three Tips for Coping with FIPS (Formerly Important Person Syndrome)

I had a dream last night that Oprah called.

It's not quite as delusional as it sounds. Some years ago, I appeared regularly on national television to discuss my books or issues related to teenagers or the psychology of daily living. I actually did appear on OPRAH twice, one of those times with my friend Chuck. In my dream, Chuck and I were invited back on the show as Oprah was winding down this year and revisiting as many of her previous guests as possible.

But the dream is still unlikely. It has been some time since I've been on national television or written an article for a national magazine -- all events that were commonplace for me at one time. The cooling of my once hot career has been slow but relentless and now my former life seems...well, a bit like a dream.

Just yesterday, someone identified me as "the person who hunkers down in the back row of Zumba so no one can see her."  That would be me.

Our friends Linda and Jay, who live two doors down from us, introduced us to the concept of FIPS or Formerly Important Person Syndrome as we discussed "who are we now?" over dinner not long ago.

We're the same people we always were, of course, regardless of what we do and where we live. But some transitions are harder than others.  There are former executives facing retirement -- forced or chosen -- feeling suddenly lost. There are people who fill the gaps left by careers that have crashed or simply run their course with frantic activities -- or who rule political action groups or community organizations with fierce dedication. There are those who look back longingly at the past shrugging off the present as time to be endured not enjoyed. There are those who think back with nostalgia at the time their sullen teenagers or opinionated young adult children were once wide-eyed toddlers who thought Mom and Dad knew everything.

If you feel symptoms of FIPS creeping up on you, what can you do?

Concentrate on now, not then.  Our rich histories, both personal and professional, are an important part of our lives. But today is equally important. Today is a gift, an opportunity. What will you do with it?
If you're looking back at what once was, you'll miss the wonder of today.

When I think of my life today, I can't remember a time when I felt so happy and so at peace. When I look back honestly at past years when I was sort of, almost famous, I remember feelings of stress, the anguish of battling a weight problem that was all too evident on camera, the loneliness of constant travel. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I could have. All of those things are nice to have done. But being right here, now, is thrilling. I love having more control over my time. I love having the opportunity to get to know my neighbors. I love having the chance to spend more time, at last, with my husband Bob and time to play with my three cats. I remember Aunt Molly telling me that she greeted every day -- after she left her long-time government speech-writing position -- with joy and the sentiment: "Today is mine!"  It's quite a different mindset from those hectic times of feeling, correctly or incorrectly, that bosses or editors or deadlines or circumstances owned me.

Total up what you've learned from your life and career transitions.  We grow from all of our experiences, the highs and the lows.  You can grow in patience and wisdom as you struggle with your ornery teenager. You can gain perspective from painful, scary experiences like losing a job or struggling, as so many do today, with finances.  Obviously, none of us would volunteer quickly for such hard lessons. But when you're in the middle of personal trials, it can help to think about what this can teach you and how your growth through this experience can help life to be different. If, like many, you find yourself underemployed and taking a career step-down, it can be an important move toward differentiating between who you really are and what you do.  

No matter what your age or life stage, make a distinction between who you are and what you do -- or have done.  When your career defines you and your value as a human being, the loss of this can be devastating. In the same way, building an identity around being a mother can put you on shaky ground when the kids leave the nest. Valuing yourself as a person, seeing your kindness, resourcefulness, generosity and other good qualities as your defining traits, can give you a lifelong identity that is independent of career or other life achievements. Life circumstances can and most certainly will change as we grow through middle age and beyond. Children grow up. Careers peak and dwindle. Strength and abilities change with age,  always leading to a new turn in your life path. When you have a strong sense of and appreciation for the unique person you are, whatever your current career or life circumstances, you never lose your essence.  

Today is yours!

Today is mine -- a joyful, rewarding gift of a day -- whether or not Oprah ever calls.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Empty Chairs at Holiday Tables

Holidays can bring cheer, but also heartache as you see some empty chairs at your holiday table.

Phyllis had tears in her eyes as she began her holiday baking yesterday. "I miss my mother," she said. "We always spent holidays together. And for some reason, I feel her absence more this year." Her mother passed away not quite two years ago at age 103. Last holiday season, Phyllis and her husband were busy moving and settling into their new home. Now that they're settled, that empty chair at the table   is much more noticeable -- and painful.

For others, empty chairs mean loved ones are far away -- either geographically or emotionally.  You may long to share the holidays with family members, but no one has the money or the time off work to travel to spend the holidays together. Or an empty chair may mean an estrangement that hurts especially at this time of year.

What can you do when those empty chairs bring holiday heartache?

Get creative!

Get together by Skype or iCHAT for a virtual Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner! Bob and I have done this with my brother Mike and his wife Amp for several years now, even to the point of coordinating dinner times so we can actually eat our turkey and talk as if we were sharing a table.

Or, if you find yourself alone at the holidays, volunteer with your local soup kitchen or charity to serve dinner to those less fortunate. The joy of giving in a new way will boost your spirits for the holiday.

Connect to the past with traditions.

Special family recipes or rituals that have defined your holiday celebrations can keep happy memories alive and help you feel connected to those times and those missing people.

There is a family recipe for dressing that is so treasured that, when my brother was living in Thailand, he asked that I bring the ingredients over with me when Bob and I spent Christmas with him and Amp in Bangkok a few years ago.  Having that dressing made our holiday table feel official, even though it was missing some treasured family members -- who were later greeted via Skype.

Try something completely new this holiday season.

One of the best Thanksgivings we ever had followed a terrible family loss: my cousin Jack's wife Tanzy died of breast cancer at the age of 36 only three days before Thanksgiving.  Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- as well as Tanzy's mother and sister -- all from Kansas -- were in Los Angeles for the funeral. I asked them to my house for Thanksgiving. At first, they thought they'd just skip the holiday. Later, they called and said they'd love to come and bring some of their own holiday favorites. We had a very full table with loved ones we rarely had a chance to see on holidays, with delicious new foods and an opportunity to share loving memories of Tanzy as well as enjoying each other. Twenty-eight years later, I remember this particular Thanksgiving with warmth and gratitude.

Last Thanksgiving, Bob and I found ourselves alone. My brother and his wife -- with a new baby -- were in Indianapolis where he was involved in a research project. My sister, a nurse at a hospital in Seattle, was working the holiday for much-needed overtime pay.  Our young friend Ryan, who usually spent holidays with us, was in a new love relationship with Sean and wanted to spend the holiday at Sean's house.  Just as we were resigned to a scaled-down holiday at home, Ryan called with an invitation: to spend Thanksgiving with him and Sean and a dozen of their close friends.  We accepted happily -- first time in years I didn't cook anything (except dressing -- a special request from Ryan) and Bob and I spent a wonderful day and evening with Ryan, Sean, and a warm and accepting group of their friends -- about 10 gay men and one young woman who was a college friend of Ryan's.  It was another one of the best Thanksgivings ever!

This year, we are at our new home in Arizona and my brother and his family are in the middle of another move while my sister is working the holidays once again. All of our neighbors -- also new to the area -- are far from their families. So we're having a Thanksgiving celebration for our street at Phyllis and Wally's home with Phyllis -- a fabulous cook and hostess -- doing most of the work and the rest of us bringing side dishes.  It promises to be another different -- but excellent -- Thanksgiving.

Give yourself time to reflect, to grieve and to forgive.  Particularly if loved ones have died or your family has been divided by divorce or disputes, it's normal to feel the loss keenly during the holidays.  Give yourself some private time to cry, to remember and to give thanks for what you did share with these missing ones. And if some loved ones have been estranged, now might be the time to reach out to them, to forgive and reconnect.  

Whether you celebrate the holidays with some empty chairs and old traditions or with creative new ideas, this doesn't mean that your heart won't ache this holiday season. But honoring the holiday traditions these missing loved ones passed on to you, the happy memories you shared and the connection you still feel can make this holiday season very special.

Monday, November 22, 2010

News Events That Define Our Lives

Forty-seven years ago today -- how is that possible? Every moment is so clear in my memory.  It was a deliciously sunny, crisp November day in Chicago. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University, just returning to the dorm for lunch when the news came over my roommate's radio: "President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. The president has been shot and wounded."

Cheryl and I sat down, staring at each other in complete shock. How could this happen? Especially to such a young, vibrant President? What would happen to his family? What would happen to the country? "Maybe he's not that badly wounded," Cheryl said at last. "Maybe he'll be all right." But the tears glistening in her eyes betrayed her doubt.

I went to my 1 p.m. class which the professor canceled in light of the events of the day. A classmate, Vern, and I went for a walk along the lake, praying and hoping and wondering who could hate so much. As we walked up to my dorm, a young woman sat on the steps, doubled over with grief, holding a small radio to her ear and sobbing loudly. "Oh, no," Vern whispered, squeezing my arm. "Oh, please, God, no!"

We all spent the weekend in the dorm's television room, watching in stunned silence as the events unfolded: the President's casket and blood-stained, traumatized widow arriving back in Washington; Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death on national television; a tiny John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father as the casket rolled by him.  And, to this day, everything is so vivid: what we saw on television and what we experienced ourselves.

It rained heavily in Chicago the day after President Kennedy's death, as we cried and grieved, each in our own way. Lorraine, who lived across the hall, sat quietly staring out her window, tears rolling silently down her cheeks, smoke curling up from the lengthening ash of a forgotten cigarette. Cheryl was on the phone to her parents, weeping and making arrangements to go home to Michigan early for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was in a fog of grief and disbelief. For many of us, it was the first time in our young lives that we had experienced the death of someone we knew. For many of us, President Kennedy did seem like someone we knew and, certainly, admired. In those years before tell-all tabloids and outing of personal failings by press and opponents alike, Kennedy was our President -- the man who urged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

In my own life, there had been a few previous deaths in the news that drew my attention. When I was eight, I cried when I heard about the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg because I felt so sorry for the young sons they were leaving behind and couldn't help but ask if being in jail wasn't punishment enough. And when 24-year-old Emilie Dionne died the next year, I stared for a long time at the picture in LIFE magazine that showed Emilie in her coffin and her four identical sisters standing there looking at her. I wondered how it must feel to look into a coffin and see a face so like one's own, the face of a much-loved sister.  But there was nothing like President Kennedy's assassination.  We all knew, the moment we heard the news, that we would always remember this moment, seared into our collective consciousness. Even today, after all these years, with Cheryl, Lorraine and Vern all dead for some time, I look back and remember every moment of that afternoon shared with them -- and see once again the shock and sorrow etched on their young faces.

Of course, that wasn't the end of the shocking news. We didn't have to wait for John Lennon's violent death or the terrifying news on 9-11. No, not quite five years after we mourned our fallen President, just as I was finishing graduate school at Northwestern, we were rocked with the news of Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations.  What many of us felt by then was not so much shock as deep sadness.  Violence against leaders wasn't quite the shocking event it had been just a few years before. It was no longer "How could someone do this? How could this happen?" but rather "Oh, no! Not again!"

And, somehow, with this shift, this realization, we were never really young again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Help! I'm in Viagra Hell!

My husband recently got a prescription for Viagra and I don't know what to do. I would be happy
having sex once or twice a month. He's ready to pop a pill and go every night. I can't stand it! He wasn't this hopped up even when we were newlyweds! Any advice?

                                                                                         Charlotte S.

One person's hell is another person's heaven.

There are countless couples who regard Viagra as a great blessing.

However, what you're describing happens with a lot of midlife couples. There are many, many Viagra prescriptions that are not refilled because of conflicts over frequency of sex. While there are many women who want more sex than their husbands at this stage of life, men who get a prescription for Viagra sometimes find themselves at odds with spouses who want sex less frequently than they do.

If you find yourself in this situation,  remember that men who have had problems with varying degrees of impotence may also have suffered a loss of confidence in themselves and their sexuality. So Viagra must seem like a miraculous infusion of youth -- and they may try to recapture or even improve on the sexual performances of their youth!

The key to making this work for both of you is to find a suitable compromise -- maybe more sex than you want, a little less than he wants -- that feels right for you as a couple.  When working out your compromise, if you find the prospect of more frequent intercourse a bit daunting, offer him a satisfying alternative with hands or mouth that will make him feel cherished and pampered. Maintaining an active sex life, however you choose to express yourselves, is good for you physically and can also add immeasurably to your happiness as a couple in midlife and beyond!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Darker Side of Aging

"You really need a sense of humor to deal with the so-called Golden Years!"

Aunt Molly's words ring true for me on a daily basis these days.

I dreamed of dancing into retirement and taking up where I left off years ago with ballet and tap. Dream on.  I have severe arthritis in my knees and feet and struggle through a gentle Zumba class every week. Who knew that one would tire so easily but that sleep would be so difficult? And that it would be so hard to lose weight at this stage of life --even with daily exercise and a variety of healthy foods? And that  friends you thought would be there forever are starting to die?

Today Bob and I took a class taught by a physician and nurse practitioner on end-of-life decisions and documents. All but one of the class participants had lost both parents and so the planning was for us, for our own last days. Bob squeezed my hand under the desk. This is the dark underside of our new life here: everyone is close to our age and we're facing the prospect of reaching that final life transition sooner than we ever imagined.  So far, it is something we're discussing but not yet experiencing.  All of the people on our street are intact couples. In rare moments between the parties, the laughter and the playful kidding, there are moments of painful truth -- one neighbor tells me she nags her husband to eat a healthier diet and lose weight "because I don't know what I would do without him." and another, battling cancer, gives me a watch "you can remember me by." Death is a presence in the midst of our active adult community life.

And yet there are so many moments to enjoy and to celebrate, perhaps because we know life isn't forever. It puts a certain perspective on the complaints on aging: so I'll never dance on pointe again. Oh, well. I'm here and alive and laughing as I stumble through Zumba.  And even though serious illness and disability has already hit some neighbors, I'm inspired by the courage and joy in living that I see all around. Yvette, for example, has a life-threatening pulmonary condition, but she's everywhere: working out at the gym, swimming, line dancing and heading the theatrical society--  all of this with her oxygen tank in tow. She radiates humor, joy and total engagement with life.  Phyllis hasn't let cancer slow down her travels and her party spirit: she's hosting the neighborhood for Thanksgiving dinner and delighting in the coming of another  holiday season.

To varying degrees, we're making peace with the inevitable. So we'll never be young and lithe again, but we can enjoy being active nonetheless.  So we're not up to hiking 10 miles, but maybe we can enjoy hiking two miles.  Maybe we won't have our beloved spouses -- or they won't have us -- for many more years, but we can certainly savor each day, each moment, we have together.

As Aunt Molly used to say, a sense of humor sure helps. Randi Gunther, a psychotherapist I interviewed years ago for an article on grief, told me that overcoming depression or grief was like giving birth, that the pain could be intense, but most of the time, it wasn't constant. She said she tried to help her patients learn to laugh between the pain and that learning to enjoy life in between life's painful challenges would make one stronger when the pain returned.  I think of the concept of laughing between the pain quite a lot these days -- whether it's while navigating on knees that creak or watching a friend deal with serious illness or another contemplate the losses that are down the road for her -- for all of us -- and I'm in awe once again of its simple wisdom.  Our laughter doesn't preclude the pain we may feel physically or emotionally as we face and anticipate a myriad of losses.  But laughter and finding joy in each day helps us to celebrate and live fully for the rest of our lives.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Celebrating the Differences in Your Marriage

Shortly after Bob and I were married, I got a call from my long-time friend Michael with the news that he, too, was about to marry.  He said that he had met a wonderful woman from Iran six weeks before and that  her visa was about to run out so they were headed to Las Vegas to get married. While I wished him well, my heart sank. I had this vision of sweet, gentle Michael being taken advantage of by a  would-be immigrant -- and hoped fervently that things would not be as they seemed.

Fast forward more than 30 years: Michael and Shahin are a happy, loving couple. He embraced her
two children from a previous marriage enthusiastically and is now a doting grandfather to their children. Not long ago, I asked Michael the secret of their marital success, besides the fact that they obviously love each other.  He replied: "We respect each other's differences.  She loves Persian parties. I like to stay home. But I encourage her to socialize as much as she wants and, of course, when it's important to her,  I do attend events. She enjoys my quiet nature and I like the fact that she's so outgoing. Our differences work really well for us as a couple. Our cultural differences are also a plus. As a family, we have a wealth of traditions -- so many occasions to celebrate!"

After our conversation, I thought about all the couples I've seen in marriage counseling -- with so many hung up on differences, some  superficial, some profound. There have been so many times when I've
watched couples convince themselves that their differences are truly irreconcilable and sometimes I've felt that they are giving up too soon and not fighting hard enough to stay married.  The concept of lovingly tolerating, even celebrating, differences between two partners in a marriage is, indeed, a secret of marital success.

Spend just a few minutes today to think about -- and celebrate -- the differences between you and your spouse.  Perhaps some of these differences have caused you sorrow or conflict in the past. Perhaps they have made you wonder if your marriage was really meant to be. While it's true that some differences can break a marriage, there are many others that you may find you can live with just fine.

By re-framing these differences as ways to enrich your life together, you may begin to see things from a different perspective.

You may find new ways to be happy together and, like Michael and Shahin, so many occasions to celebrate!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

OMG! I'm Turning Into My Mother (And Other Surprises of Midlife)

It may have been that fleeting glimpse in the mirror that alerted you or a phrase from your own childhood that escaped your lips while you were reprimanding your teenager. It may have been a gesture, a phrase, a habit you suddenly noticed.  Whatever the signal, it seems to be an unrefutable fact: you're turning into your mother!

Is that a positive or a negative for you? Or a little of both?

For my friend Ginny, it's a shock primarily because she can't quite believe she's actually middle-aged. "I remember my mother at this age very clearly," she told me recently.  "How did this all happen so quickly? I really do look like my mother did at this age and it's a mixed blessing -- both appealing and appalling. I think my mother is a lovely older woman and so I'm pleased to resemble her. But it also means I'm getting older and I just don't feel that old inside!"

Barbara finds her similarities a bit unsettling. "I have always disliked my mother's imperious attitude toward people who help her at stores or banks," she says. "Then the other day, I was horrified to find myself in a bit of a snit at the bank, waving my hand dismissively at a young teller who was only trying to help. I don't want to be like that!"

I'm reminded of my mother whenever I look in the mirror. We didn't resemble each other at all in our respective young adulthoods, but now I see her clearly in my face and my peculiar body shape (flat in back, round in front with short, muscular legs). And I'm suddenly aware of her in some habits. The other night I awoke at 2 a.m. and noticed that, once again, I had my left leg resting on top of the covers. And I remembered how we used to tease my mother for always sleeping with her left leg on top of the covers.

For some of us, like Barbara, recognizing an undesirable parental trait in ourselves can be a valuable wake-up call for change.

And some of us, like Ginny, may take some time to adjust to being and looking middle-aged when we still feel 18 inside.

While reaching an age when we look like or act like a parent we so clearly remember at that stage can be a shock, it can also be a blessing.

Some of the positive surprises we may encounter -- besides that face in the mirror -- are some signals of growth, qualities we may have treasured in our parents and are beginning to see in ourselves as we age.

We may see ourselves developing the patience of midlife and beyond.  There may be times when you wonder how your mother ever tolerated your adolescent notions and smile as you see yourself dealing with some of your teen's excesses with equal patience.  My friend Sally, a former Sixties Berkeley radical, spent many weekends trying to get her parents to accept her newly acquired insights. Later, she was amazed at her own patience when her teenage stepson trolled through the groceries she brought home, haranguing her on her insensitivity to farm-worker issues if she happened to buy grapes or the wrong kind of lettuce. "When I found myself listening to all his ranting without screaming or throttling him or without cutting him off, I thought that here was a way to honor the memory of my parents and their infinite patience with me," Sally says with a smile.

We may see ourselves becoming kinder people as we age.  I've always thought that junior high school is the greatest argument against  reincarnation. It's hard to top the misery of 7th grade and the raw cruelty of young adolescents.  Measured against middle school, every milestone of life feels kinder, but as we age and experience some rough spots in our own lives, we tend to become more tolerant and empathic towards others.  I noticed this quite dramatically among some of my high school classmates.  At an early high school reunion -- was it our 10th? Our 15th? -- I was heartbroken when most of those attending made fun of and ostracized our old class misfit: a shy, morbidly obese young woman who was the butt of too many jokes and too much exclusion in her high school years.  By our 40th reunion, many of the same classmates showed compassion, concern and real kindness toward this unfortunate woman whose health was in decline. The up side of living through our own hard times, heartbreaks and health challenges as the years go by is that we can develop greater compassion and kindness toward others.

We become more generous with others as generativity kicks in.  When I was younger, I used to shake my head at people, some only slightly older than I, who would step back from the spotlight and cheer others on.  I couldn't imagine such a scenario for myself as I kept striving for career success and recognition.  My friends who were parents got a big head start on this, but, even for those of us who don't have children, there comes a time when encouraging and mentoring younger people is a true pleasure. Seeing my friend Sharon's beautiful daughter Carrie perform, I am thrilled -- and happy to add to the applause and cheering for her at curtain calls.  There have been some applicants for Northwestern University, whom I've interviewed in years past and whom I've loved encouraging and cheering on in their endeavors, whether or not they chose to attend Northwestern.  It isn't a matter of wishing I could dance like Carrie or had the wondrous talents of some of the interviewees.  It's all about them. I'm just happy see new generations of bright, talented young people grow up. Who would have guessed?

We grow wiser in midlife and beyond.  We learn to pick our battles, to let some things go.  We learn to measure our reactions, hold our tongues. We learn when speaking up is cruel and when it's kind and how to quickly tell the difference. We learn to look past the superficial attributes or less than ideal qualities of others and come to value them more as people who, like us, are a unique, complex mix of talents, faults and insights. We learn the value of listening with our hearts and of keeping an open mind.

While we may look in the mirror and experience an "OMG!" moment when we see the undeniable passage of time, growing on to the phase of life we remember so well in our parents can be an unexpectedly rewarding experience.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Accidental Angels in Our Lives

I recently saw a documentary that featured a man in his forties talking about his unpromising youth: a youth filled with neglect and abuse from alcoholic parents, a life that revolved around drugs, drinking and multiple arrests for crimes from burglary to auto theft. He was arrested 24 times before he was 17. With the threat from authorities that his next crime would lead to an adult conviction and prison, he sat in front of the high school where he was struggling through classes, reflecting on his past and his future with despair. Soon after that, his life changed for the better when he landed a job delivering merchandise for a high-end furniture store. He enjoyed the job and liked meeting the customers, whose lives were so different from his. One day, he made a delivery to the lovely home of a pediatric surgeon. Something clicked. He poured out his heart to the doctor, telling him how he wanted to make something of his life. The doctor said "So do it!" And the ensuing life-changing friendship with this kind, but no-nonsense doctor encouraged the young man to learn to read, to continue in high school and college. In the next shot, showing him washing his hands with his bad boy day tattoos still visible, the young man had morphed from juvenile delinquent to noted thoracic surgeon whose academic progress through college and medical school was mentored and cheered on by his doctor friend.

While most of us may not have such dramatic life changes, we've all encountered many accidental angels in our lives. Who are accidental angels? They're people who were not family, but who came into our lives by chance or for a reason and who taught us life-changing or life-enhancing lessons along the way. As we review our lives from the vantage point of middle age or beyond, we can see with new clarity how many times we were at a crossroads, how many times someone came along to give us a word of encouragement, an extra push or a piece of information that allowed us to grow and change.

Who are yours? Have you paused to think about the people, beyond close family members, who made a huge difference in the course and the quality of your life? Stop and think for a while. Who, in each phase, each season and each challenge of your life, walked with you and made a difference?

Some of my most significant angels are teachers.

There was Sister Rita McCormack, my brother's first grade teacher and one of my dearest adult friends when I was a child. She was a young Irish nun who was playful, musical, funny and deeply caring. (Think Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music"). Rita cared enough to confront my parents about some abuse at home and helped me to recover my confidence after lingering symptoms of my battle with polio caught the attention of playground bullies. She reprimanded them, embraced me and spent hours after school helping me to regain clear speech -- and, at the same time, inspiring my love of acting that would be so important to me in high school and college -- by acting out poetry and short plays with me. She is now 80, a spirited activist, and still incredibly dear to me.

There was Sister Ramona Bascom, my high school journalism teacher, who not only encouraged me to write, but also was a caring and trusted friend to whom I could tell my deepest secrets and feel only love, warmth and total acceptance in return. She taught me what it meant to be a successful human being, quite beyond one's profession or lifestyle.  At 75, she is still giving generously of herself -- now bringing comfort to students as a staff counselor at Stanford University. And we are dear friends to this day.

There was Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, a tough-talking, chain-smoking Australian journalist, who taught the first writing class I ever took at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I was terrified when I first saw her and heard her long list of requirements for us as fledgling journalists (the #1 rule was "Don't bore me...").  She wrote almost more on my papers than I did -- and, as painful as some of the criticism was, initially, it was right. She forced me to confront and overcome my shyness by making me do more interviews than anyone else -- and, to help me along, paired me for one assignment with another student, Tim Schellhardt, who happened to teach me an unforgettable lesson about effective interviewing. Tim went on to become, among other things, the White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal, as well as my lifelong friend.  Many years later, Tim called me from his Wall Street Journal office to tell me that news had just come over the wires that Elizabeth, a noted journalist herself, had died of a heart attack shortly after her retirement. We cried together on the phone for the loss of this testy, vibrant, immensely talented and caring woman who had been such an angel in our lives.

There were unexpected angels in bosses -- Bob MacLeod at 'TEEN who encouraged me to develop my writing niche in psychology and health, Betty Price at 'TEEN who taught me crucial lessons in kindness, integrity and living one's faith, Dr. Tiffin Clegg at College Hospital who encouraged me to go back to graduate school for my clinical psychology degree and a new career as a psychotherapist, Dr. Michael Scavio at CSPP for his kindness, inspiration and encouragement and Nora Valdiviezo at UCLA Medical Center who took a chance on me and helped to smooth my way to a new life phase.

And, of course, we all have angels in our friends.  Who have yours been? Among all the dear ones in our lives, which ones helped to make a major difference?

For me, there is Mary Breiner who brings unconditional love to her close friendships and incredible warmth to the lives of those fortunate enough to know her. There is Pat Hill, whose love and loyalty date back to our kindergarten days. Sharon Hacker, who was a long-time friend of my husband's when I met him,  has blessed me with her loving friendship as well through all the ensuing seasons of life. There are a number of treasured college friends -- Tim Schellhardt, Jeanne Yagi, Ruth Woodling, Georgie Watson, Marcia Moore, Robert McVea -- who became my second family then and continue to enrich my life to this day.  There is Michael Polich who was there to share important milestones of young adulthood and whose continuing to care has meant so much. There are the women I worked with at 'TEEN:  bright, fun, supportive of one another and delightful, collectively the best co-workers I would ever have.

There is Liz Canfield, a Holocaust survivor and noted health educator, who has taught me so much about resilience and living fully. There is Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman, to whom Liz introduced me so many years ago, with whom I have written four books and with whom as a friend, I have shared some of the most excruciatingly painful as well a joyous times of our lives.  There are Susan Protter and Gene Brissie, who, as agents and publisher, have made a huge difference in my writing career and have brought as least as much joy to my life as treasured friends.

And there have been patients. I never guessed, when I started training and working as a psychotherapist, how much I would learn from my patients. There was J., my very first patient, with whom I worked for six years, who taught me so much about persistence, patience and listening with my heart and C., with whom I worked for eight years after she experienced some devastating losses in her life, who taught me a great deal about courage and the healing power of humor.

And, not least, there are our spouses -- who may have grown up with us, gone to school with us, worked with us or who may have been chance encounters who changed our lives.

Bob and I met by chance, at a conference, 35 years ago this month.  I was feeling out of sorts that day and almost didn't go. He was so uncertain about attending that he drove around the block a few times before deciding to go in. We had no idea, when sitting down in the same discussion group, that our lives were changing forever. We've learned so many lessons together in love, endurance and loyalty through good times and challenging times over the years. With his unwavering love and support, Bob has helped me to take chances I would not have otherwise taken and to make so many dreams come true. When I think about what an incredible difference Bob has made in my life, I think that could be a blog -- a book -- in itself!

As Bob and I move on to a new phase of our life together, angels continue to appear. When we recently moved from Los Angeles to rural Arizona, we had no idea we would be living next to neighbors -- Phyllis and Wally, Larry and Louise, Jay and Linda, Carl and Judith -- who seem heaven-sent, a loving and accepting new second family in this time of transition for us all.

Who are the angels in your life today?  Think back. Look around. And say a quiet "thanks" to all the special people who have brought so much wisdom and caring and joy to your life's journey!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

9 Ways to Get Your Teen to Unplug from the MP3 and Talk With You

My 15-year-old daughter used to be a delightful child who loved to talk with us. Now she's plugged into her iPod 24/7 or on her computer or both and is totally unreachable. How can I get her to start communicating with us again?
                                                                                                     Karen S.

Remember the good old days when all parents of teenagers had to deal with was sullen silence?
Teens today hit the same developmental stages that we did: separating themselves from us by walking three paces behind in public or answering questions about their day or friendly parental greetings with "I don't know" or "Nothing" or "Whatever..." Now, aided by electronic distractions, they can shut themselves away from parents in a whole new way.

How can you penetrate this wall of silence and start communicating with your teen again?

  • Set a time when everyone in the household unplugs.  This might be during dinner when all cell phones and other electronic devices are shut off to make room for the possibility of real conversation.  And if, because of habit or busy schedules, a sit-down family dinner is increasingly rare -- make time for it at least several times a week. And involve your teen in the preparation. Some teens open up and talk most readily while performing tasks side by side with a parent.
  • Take walks or drives together.  An evening walk is good exercise and a chance to talk without it being a confrontation. Sometimes teens are more likely to open up if they're not sitting face to face with you, but walking beside you or sitting by you in the car during a drive.
  • Take steps to communicate their way some of the time.  During a recent visit, my friend Sharon impressed me with her texting skills. "I had to learn," she said, laughing. "For a while, it was the only way to communicate with my daughter.  You have a kid, you learn!" It can't hurt to let your teen know that you love him or her or that you're wishing him or her well for a critical test, a tryout or other major event, or that you're looking forward to seeing him/her at a family dinner or a nightly walk via texting.  Use electronics, in between good conversations, to make a warm connection.
  • Recognize that at some point during the teenage years, kids are more likely to confide in their friends or non-parental adults than in you.  That can hurt, but be assured that as they mature, they'll come to realize once again that no one loves them more than you do. In the meantime, respecting good friendships and allowing them to be close to other adults -- a grandparent, aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher, neighbor -- is a very special way of showing your love.
  • Take care to listen.  Never will your listening skills -- and patience -- be more crucial than when your kids are teenagers. If you want to encourage conversations, don't be too quick with criticisms, interruptions or long stories about your own teen years or your opinions.  When your teen speaks, listen. Encourage him or her to say more with  your questions and your willingness to hear what he or she is saying.  I sometimes cringe remembering my teenage rants about how I was never, ever going to be a housewife like my mother but was going to be an independent career woman like Aunt Molly. My mother, who had given up a high profile career she loved to raise her three children, would listen quietly and comment "I'd love to see you enjoy a wonderful career. There's nothing like that. And there's also nothing like raising a family you love if you decide to do that someday." And she encouraged my closeness to Aunt Molly, her never-married and childless sister-in-law and best friend. Only years later, looking through the scrapbooks of my mother's career as an aviation pioneer -- a nurse turned airline stewardess in the 1930's when that was a fabulous career and led to product endorsements, modeling in ads, being mentioned in gossip columns, doing radio shows and mingling with celebrities and world figures (there is a picture of my mother presenting a plaque from American Airlines to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) -- did I understand the enormity of her sacrifice -- and her love for us. Not to mention her patience with a daughter who took a while to get a clue about the value of her life choices. 
  • Let your memory be your guide.  Think back.  How much did you really tell your parents? How much time did you spend talking with them on a daily basis? Are you expecting more of your teens? My friend Andrea, reflecting on her daughter's teen years, remembers that "it was a shock when she started tuning me out. Of course, MY parents had been a temporary embarrassment during my teens. But I was a cool parent. I was with it. I couldn't understand why she'd slide down in the backseat of the car when I'd sing along with her generation's music. After all, her friends who were riding along with us didn't seem to mind! I soon learned that they didn't mind because I wasn't their parent. My daughter's attitude passed quickly enough and she became the talkative and terrific companion she had been before. But remembering how I was, for a time, with my parents helped me wait it out and let her know she was loved and cherished even when we didn't communicate that often or well."
  • Ask your teen's opinions.  Encourage him or her to voice opinions about interests or causes you share -- or could share.  Ask what he or she thinks about a news event or a t.v. show or movie. Listen closely to her reply. Let him know that you value his opinions -- even if these differ from yours.
  • Be an askable parent.  The late psychologist and author Dr. Sol Gordon used to define an askable parent as one whose teenager knew that no situation would be made worse by his telling his parents about it or by asking for parental advice.  It can also mean not jumping to conclusions when your teenager asks for information or your opinion about a controversial or sensitive issue. Instead of starting with "Why do you want to know THAT?" try just answering the question with information or your honest opinion.  And, if you're not sure how to answer, say so in a non-threatening way -- e.g. "I'm not quite sure how to answer that. Let me think about that for a moment..." or "I'm not sure what I think about that....or I'm not sure I have all the correct information either. Let's get online or consult a book and find out the answers together."
  • Keep your sense of humor.  My friends Tim and Barbe raised four of the most wonderful kids imaginable. But Tim says there were some tense times in their teens. The best advice ever came from a middle school guidance counselor who told him "Never  lose your sense of humor! You need it most during these years!"
It is often said that the only experience as hard or harder than being a teenager is being the parent of a teenager.  But if you're willing to reach out with love, listen,  be open to hearing what your teen has to say and keep a humorous perspective,  you can cut through both the sullen and electronic silence to let your teenager  know, more than he or she may admit at the moment, how much you care.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Midlife Job Insecurity: New Career Moves for a Changing World

There was a time when career success and stability all came down to a few basics: showing up, working hard and treating others with respect.

In these far more uncertain times, you can do everything right -- and still find yourself in a precarious position on the job -- or out in the cold, looking for a job in the worst market in years. Add to these challenges being over 50 and you're looking at a rough road ahead.

So what can you do to smooth the way to more job security? Or to find a job in this unpromising economic climate?

If you still have a job, but are worried:
  • Take a look around at what skills are most needed in your workplace and update your skill set ASAP!  One of the assumptions that make those over 50 most vulnerable to layoffs and last to be hired is that of obsolescence.  Those of us who started using computers in adulthood aren't likely to have the fearlessness of the generations who have never known a world without personal computers. But you can become good -- very good -- at current applications with some extra effort. If your company offers skills enhancement classes, take them! If not, seek skill-building at your local community college or Regional Occupational Center.  Yes, it takes time -- and who among us has an excess of free time these days? But updating your skills now can save you a lot of time and trouble later -- when you're trying to stay relevent and employable in your current workplace or get hired for a new job. A commitment to learn new skills is always a plus.
  • Put a lid on bad habits immediately.  You want to be noticed for your positive on-the-job contribution, not for the ways that you're trouble. If you like office gossip, strive to keep your mouth closed (but your ears open). If you have a grievance, think twice about airing it.  I once had a patient I'll call Sue who was 65, single and struggling to stay at a job she needed for economic survival. It was clear from what she was telling me that she was being marginalized and culled from the pack for eventual layoff.  Sue knew her job was in jeopardy. But, day to day, what galled her most was the difference between the way her boss treated her and the way he treated a young co-worker.  "He busts me if I'm even a minute late," she would say. "But Patti can waltz in an hour late and he doesn't say a word to her except give her a friendly greeting. It's not fair! It hurts my feelings when my boss plays favorites." She wondered how she could best complain about this unfair treatment. I told her that, considering her circumstances, the main task here was job survival, not fair treatment -- and that what she needed to be concerned about was her own punctuality improvement and flawless job performance.
  • Make the best of a bad situation while exploring your options.  These days, unfortunately, it's especially risky to give your demanding or unfair or clueless or (fill in the blank) new boss a piece of your mind and a quick tutorial on how things used to be or should be.  Keep a low profile, do as you're told and quietly explore your options.  My friend Wendy, whose beloved, longtime boss retired, found his replacement to be "totally from hell...couldn't stand the woman...and couldn't hide what I felt."  And Wendy's new boss, exasperated with her sullen, uncooperative attitude, quickly fired her.  Wendy was doing a lot of things right behind the scenes -- networking, exploring other job openings within the organization, updating her resume. But she forgot one thing: to make a real effort to work well with her new boss, no matter how impossible she might have been, until she had a firm offer for another job.
  • Emphasize the value of your current skills and flexibility, not your years of experience. There is a sentiment that what you can offer now rather than what you have done in the past is most valuable in a lot of workplaces today. Put too much emphasis on your years of experience and your boss or management may begin to see you as a part of the past rather than the future.
  • Help others whenever you can: If a colleague or a friend asks you for a job lead or recommendation, give it! It feels good to help -- and, who knows? Maybe this person can help you down the line when your positions might be reversed.
If you're job-hunting (either hoping to make a change or currently unemployed):
  • Assume that, because you're middle-aged or beyond, your job search will take longer -- so start it sooner rather than later!  Some newly unemployed midlife workers decide to take a vacation to nurse bruised feelings or consider new directions or just relax from work stress for awhile. The problem is, without a plan or some structure, this time off can stretch into a long period of non-productiveness, depression and anxiety. Decide, if possible, even before a layoff, which direction you might like to go -- and get a head start on acquiring new skills or education while you still have a regular income. If a layoff has caught you by surprise, devise a job hunting plan before depressed inertia hits -- and stick to your plan.
  • Network! This is particularly important when you're older and it's just too easy for HR departments to toss your resume in the dreaded circular file when they detect or suspect that you're over 50. Someone who knows your strengths can help you overcome this common obstacle. Spread the word to friends, relatives, former co-workers, friends of friends, anyone and everyone who could help. This isn't a time to be embarrassed about your unemployed status or disinclination to bother people.  When I was 47 and looking to return to graduate school for a degree in clinical psychology and the required clinical training for licensure, I knew I needed a reliable job -- and freelance writing could no longer be it -- to pay the all too predictable tuition and living expenses. To my surprise, despite excellent credentials, prospective employers were uniformly unenthusiastic: "You're over-qualified!" "You'd be bored. You wouldn't stay." or, my personal favorite, "So you've written a bunch of books. So what? We need someone who can write a press release!"  I finally sent a resume in response to a blind ad in the newspaper for a staff job at an educational institution. I got an invitation to interview, my first in months. And when I arrived at the interview, I was met by Marilyn, a psychologist whose name I recognized immediately, and who said: "I know you. You interviewed me for one of your books thirteen years ago. I can't believe you're looking for a job, but let's talk."  And after assuring her that I would, indeed, stay even if I were to sell another book, I was hired (and ended up staying eight years).  Marilyn had pulled my resume out of 178 received for this less than exciting job because she recognized my name. Although I couldn't claim credit for networking, it gave me new respect for this practice -- and I made use of this in subsequent job-hunting efforts.
  • Stay positive and connected with others:  Keep your spirits up by keeping in touch with family, friends and former co-workers. Spend too much time alone and you can fall into feelings of failure, anger and despair. Rejection hurts. Assumptions and obnoxious comments from prospective employers can enrage you. Don't dwell on these -- but on the support and love you share with so many people in your life.
  • Consider interim work while you look for that permanent job.  One of the more distasteful trends in employment today is the emphasis on temps, part-time and contract workers without benefits. You might not want to be in this situation long-term, but short-term, it can be a foot in the door at a company or a chance to see the inner workings, politics and possibilities at a variety of companies. It can also be a way to show an employer, more than your resume can, just what an asset you can be.
  • Consider turning a hobby into a full or part-time career.  That little business you've always had or wanted to have on the side may turn into a new career or bring in some needed cash.  My friend Robert, a long-time newspaper editor in Chicago, once told me that he saw "the creeping intern scourge" increasingly at his newspaper: instead of hiring new reporters or editors as regular employees, management decided to hire "interns" on two-year contracts without benefits. He said that he had long been thinking of starting a gift shop as well as online shopping site that would appeal to pet lovers.  Not long after that, he convinced his skeptical but game wife Mary to run the shop and work with him on the website while he continued to work at the newspaper. Over several years, both gift shop and online shopping site were successful. And when newspaper management finally offered Robert a separation package he couldn't refuse, he went happily to work in the shop with his wife. "And I haven't missed my former career for a minute," he says. "I'm just so thankful -- especially to my wife and also to my own foresight -- that I had this new venture waiting for me."
The seriousness of the current economic and job situation is a fact of life.  And the special challenges of workers and job-hunters over 50 can also be daunting. Job stability in 2010 takes much more than just showing up and working hard. But with hard work --on the job and looking for a job -- is still a major asset. With the addition of help from friends and family, a plan,  and a positive attitude, you can make a new beginning!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Those Landmark Birthdays

Remember a time when landmark birthdays automatically meant fun?

Sixteen? Driving -- and freedom in a new way!
Eighteen? Off to college and/or out of the house!
Twenty-one? You were legal in many more ways!
After that, it gets a bit more complicated. 

How did you welcome 30? 40? 50? 

If you're like most Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, how you greet a landmark
birthday is a whole different experience from the milestones in your parents' lives.

A half century ago, thirty was getting middle-aged and the forties and fifties were definitely approaching geezer territory. I remember my parents greeting 50 with sad resignation, observing that they were, in fact, truly old and that life was not destined to change much for the better. 

It's different today. My friend Jerry spent his 50th birthday skydiving and another friend Steve celebrated that landmark with a trek through the Amazon. I spent my 50th birthday at my psychotherapy internship, struggling to work with warring, screaming, court-ordered couples who seemed to be competing with each other for featured spots on "The Jerry Springer Show."  At the time, I felt a bit sorry for myself, but on reflection chose to see the occasion as positive preparation for a new career and life direction.

On my father's 60th birthday, he got a telemarking call from Forest Lawn cemetery, offering a deal on burial plots. He took to his bed in a total funk, muttering about life being over.

Shortly after my brother turned 60, new life was the focus as he and his wife welcomed their daughter Grace into the world.

And as time goes on, a new sentiment kicks in: gratitude for growing older. So your shape isn't as sleek as it might have been or your hair as abundant or your face as line-free as in years past. But you've been blessed with yet another birthday, landmark or not.

Some of my close female college friends haven't been nearly as fortunate:

My beloved friend Marie never lived to be 30. She was murdered by her husband just shy of her 29th birthday.

And Lorraine, who died suddenly at 42, never to see her daughters graduate from college, marry, enjoy successful careers and never to meet her grandchildren.

And Jane, whose birthday was two weeks after mine and with whom I was planning to celebrate a blow-out dual 50th birthday party, died of lung cancer two months short of the big day.

And Cheryl, my college roommate for the first two years at Northwestern and a very special person in my life, died of cancer shortly after her 60th birthday.

I think of the landmark birthdays I've had that they -- and so many others -- never reached. And I grieve for them and feel incredible gratitude for the time I've been given.

This is not to say that someone else's landmark birthday can't be a shock. 
When I was 26 and he was 41, my friend Maurice, a television and film actor, and I were a couple. However, the 15 year age difference felt huge and, eventually, was our undoing as we went our separate ways romantically. Still, as a friend, he didn't seem THAT old.  But last week, Maurice turned 80. A former boyfriend is now 80!!! I was stunned when his voice on the phone sounded the same as always. And I was delighted to hear that he was welcoming his 80th birthday with joy.  "Isn't it incredible?" he laughed. "I never imagined I'd ever be 80. I'm so glad I'm here to celebrate!" A cancer survivor, Maurice is continuing to work as an actor and recently had two film offers.

A new friend Tom, who spends about three hours at the gym nearly every day and much of the rest of his time leading serious hikes through the surrounding desert and mountains here, looks 50, but also just welcomed his 80th birthday. 

The vigor and joy of these somewhat older friends is an inspiration.
They underscore the fact that a landmark birthday is just a number -- and a frame of mind. One can dread the day and moan about growing older or celebrate the gift of growing older and live fully and joyously through each day.

My brother Mike turned 62 today.  There are many ways that 62 can be a landmark, not the least as early Social Security eligibility. However, Mike is choosing a different path: he celebrated his birthday today by starting a challenging new job at a major university and relocating, with his wife and toddler daughter, to an area they have always loved and wanted to explore together.

I can't imagine a better way -- for him -- to mark this birthday!

Happy, memorable 62nd, Mike! And may you have many, more more!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Embracing the Invisibility of Middle Age

I was never a beauty.

In fact, I was a plain, awkward and shy teenager who sat home dateless on prom night and who would listen, with an aching heart, as guys -- who considered me a great buddy -- asked me for advice on how to capture the affections of my female friends. While rumors swirled around some classmates at my Catholic girls' high school that this one had French kissed and that one had actually flirted with third base, rumors about me centered on my alleged post-high school plans of entering a monastic convent in the South where the nuns beat themselves and slept on straw.

My mother, a popular beauty in her youth, tried to console me by taking my head in her hands and telling me to just wait, that my time was coming, that one day I would wake up and look just like Elizabeth Taylor.

My Elizabeth Taylor moment never arrived.

However, in young adulthood, I blossomed into enough attractiveness to prompt whistles when I walked past construction sites, propositions from colleagues at out of town conferences and, to my considerable relief, the romantic attention of some very good men. And I would sometimes even catch the eye of an occasional celebrity. In one memorable incident when I was a young magazine reporter, I was having lunch at Hollywood's legendary Brown Derby restaurant with an aging television star whom I was interviewing about his endorsement of a major political cause. Near the end of the interview, he leaned over to me, wheezing slightly, and said, off the subject and out of the blue, "You know, I've had a vasectomy."

Equally memorable is the day I realized that my maximum visibility, my time in the sun, had vanished and that I was slipping irrevocably into the invisibility of middle age.

I was plump, on the edge of graying, and in my mid-forties. On a whim, I had stopped at the construction site of some beachside condos to look at the model homes and dream a bit.  The construction zone around the parking lot was teeming with young, burly construction workers.  I stepped out of my car and, a few paces later, into a giant pothole, severely spraining my ankle. I fell face down onto the asphalt. No one noticed. I lay there waiting. Nothing. I finally struggled up and, on all fours, dragged myself into the sales office.  A robotically smiling young woman, brochures in hand, looked down at me.  "Have you visited our models before?" she asked.

"I'm hurt," I moaned, rolling and flailing on the floor at her feet.

"Does this mean you don't want to look at the models?"

"I fell in a pothole out there and I can't walk."

"Oh. Well, do you want to sit down for awhile?" And she rushed to answer a phone call.

I sat, realizing that if I didn't get ice on my ankle and some medical attention soon, I wouldn't be able to move at all.  I crawled back to my car, still invisible to the construction crew only a few feet away, and drove myself to an Urgent Care center.

To varying degrees, it happens to all of us.

My college roommate Ruth, a successful attorney with a taste for hot sports cars, says that her realization of invisibility came when young men stopped staring at her at stoplights and saying "Hi, babe. How you doing?" and started saying  "Hmmm. Nice car!"

When we reach a certain age, advertisers and marketers start ignoring us for younger, more free-spending demographics. Most movies are made for younger audiences more likely to pack theaters.
The female movie stars of our youth -- with the exception of Helen Mirrin, Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon who seem to elude all ageist categorization -- slip into television or obscurity.  As my Aunt Molly used to say "You know you've reached that certain age when you're a guest at the party, but the party is never for you."

And yet, like Harry Potter's wonderfully useful invisibility cloak, there is an upside to middle-aged invisibility.

It gives us the freedom to go the party for someone else and rejoice for them. It allows us to sit on the sidelines without feeling diminished as we cheer our kids, our grandchildren or young people we're mentoring on to achievement.

It gives us the joy of being very much ourselves, less concerned with how we appear to others and what others think.  It allows us to find our voice, to speak our minds with new clarity. Away from the outside clamor and attention, often from those who really don't matter to us, we quietly come to terms with the unique individuals we have grown to be.

Middle-aged invisibility allows me to sweat at the gym and take the risk of throwing myself into Zumba Gold and Pilates secure in the knowledge that no one is looking at me. So what if I'm a klutz or overweight or forgetfully mangle routines? I have the joy of getting fit without worrying about looking like a fool.

Invisibility allows us to speak our minds, take new risks and tackle new challenges because, until we're well along with our goal, no one notices.

And when people do notice, it's to give us extra credit for things that used to be ordinary. Young people laugh with appreciation and a bit of surprise when I erupt with a cynical opinion, a mild obscenity or a statement they consider at least a little outrageous for a white-haired woman of a certain age.  When my husband and I hold hands or put our arms around each other in public, almost invariably, a younger person will approach us with "Oh, you guys are soooo sweet!"

But the opinions of others don't matter nearly as much as they used to. Now that we're mostly invisible, we're self-directed, more confident and more in touch with who we are and what we think.  Only our own and the opinions of those close to us matter.

Not long ago, my sister-in-law Amp, who is in her late twenties and from Thailand, suddenly, mid-conversation, took my face in her hands and said softly "You are so beautiful. I hope when I am older, I can be as beautiful as you."

Stunned, I looked back at her lovely young face with obvious incredulity.

"Your life is in your face and I love what I see," she said, tracing a finger along a laugh line. "Where I come from, we know that real beauty takes time."

I thought back -- through all my youthful disappointments, the loneliness of my blossoming young adulthood and the confidence that grew through finding my own voice, cheering others on and celebrating each season of my life -- and felt the power and truth of her words.

Beautiful -- in my own way and my own time. At last.

Friday, October 29, 2010

7 Ways to Prevent a Halloween (Caloric) Nightmare

Q. I'm dreading Halloween because I always pig out. When my kids were small, I'd steal some of their candy. Now I buy too much candy and eat a bunch of it of it both before and after the holiday. I can't afford the calories this year.  I don't want to be a old grump, not buy candy and turn off the porch light. How can I celebrate (survive!) Halloween without it being a diet disaster?

                                                                                                       Linda H.

What is it with Halloween?

Willpower wilts before the spectre of candy corn and fun-sized candy bars both before and after the young ghouls have come calling. Candy that one can resist with little difficulty the rest of the year is irresistible now -- and it's the last thing some of us need as we battle our middle-age spread.

So what to do -- to keep the fun in the holiday and the fat off your hips?

1. Give candy you don't like or can't eat. 
For me that would be chewy caramels or tough nougets or sticky nut clusters -- all guaranteed to remove thousands of dollars of my dental work in record time. I don't dare even think of indulging. Whatever your least favorite candy -- sour drops, hard candy, licorice -- that's what should be in your Trick or Treat bowl this year. Whatever culinary horrors you offer, there will be kids who will be delighted.

2. Don't give out candy -- try stickers or small toys instead.
Granted, it can be risky, but some kids are happy to get something a little different. It's a good idea to check with your favorite child first before you buy anything to find out what's cool and what's likely to get your car egged.

3. Freeze the candy until Halloween.
When you can't grab a piece of candy on impulse, you're less likely to over-indulge!

4. Allow yourself a small indulgence.
Totally denying yourself candy on Halloween may whet your appetite for sweets and derail your diet for weeks. Decide which variety of candy you really want,  count out a (reasonable) number of pieces -- then give the rest away.

5. Limit your quantities of leftover sweets.
Do you buy enough candy to feed half the population of a major American city? Cut back! Buy less! Give away more to the little ghouls.

6. Keep giving -- and get the leftovers out of the house.
After the trick or treaters have come and gone, bundle up any leftovers. Take them to work with you the next day (but don't keep the giveaways on or in the vicinity of your desk!). Donate the candy to a food pantry. Even throw it all out. It's better in the trash than expanding your waistline.

7. If celebrating Halloween is important to you, go ahead and celebrate -- with fewer calories.
Some of us over-indulge on Halloween because it gets us back in touch with our own fondly remembered trick or treating past and the joy of achieving the ultimate sugar high one night a year. Remember what you enjoyed about Halloween besides devouring a sackful of candy? Maybe it was a costume? So dress up and join a local Halloween party or parade. Maybe it was a special family ritual that you could re-create.

My neighbor Louise has fond memories of the many Halloweens she made costumes for her kids and grandkids, decorated the house and yard with her own special holiday creations and, before sending the little ones off for a night of trick or treating, she served her family their traditional Halloween meal of chili and cornbread. (They loved it and it cut down a bit on their candy consumption later!)  This year, while we're all hoping for lots of kids at our doors, the rumor is that young tricksters rarely venture into our new neighborhood. Undeterred, Louise is decorating her front yard with a variety of ghosts, spider webs and other traditional ghoulish decor. And she is serving up chili and cornbread to the neighborhood, as we celebrate not only the memories of Halloween past -- but Halloween present in a new but wonderful way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Five Things You Can't Afford to Overlook in Retirement Planning

For most of us, the mere mention of "Retirement Planning" conjures up financial concerns and anxieties: Will I ever have enough money to retire? How much is enough? Will I ever really be able to retire? Is long-term care insurance worth the price for me? Where do I begin with serious estate planning?

To be sure, those are all important considerations.

But planning for the emotional transitions of retirement is equally important. How do you begin to prepare? 

Start by asking yourself the following questions.

Why do I want to retire?

When you dream of retiring, is it to escape your present reality? To do things you really want to do? To embrace a new phase of life? All of the above?

If most of your retirement dreams focus on getting out of the rat race, ditching a necessary but dreary job and being free, you may find retirement a let-down. What?? It's true. When you think mostly of running away from a less-than-thrilling life, you may find yourself thinking "What now?" after the initial euphoria of not having to get up at 4:30 a.m. for the big commute begins to wane. I see some people here in my own community who look for random ways to fill their days that are as passionless as their workdays might have been.

If you dream of retirement to pursue interests long-deferred, think of starting to do these things right now even with your busy work schedule. You may be able to bring new satisfaction into your life today even if retirement is years away. Think of this as building for retirement as surely as you put money into your 401K every month. Building interests, skills and pursuing your passions are all part of preparing for a satisfying retirement -- and a more fulfilling life at the moment.

If you dream of embracing a new phase of life, that's a positive. But beware of the fantasy that life will be a dream as you morph into the person you always wanted to be. Remember the saying "Wherever you go, there you are." Transitioning into a new phase of life doesn't mean you'll be a different person, but the same person in new circumstances.

Since I retired from everything but writing earlier this year and moved to a new community dedicated to fitness, wellness and continued education, I still struggle with my weight, which began to climb when I was in my forties. I still love sweets a bit too much.  The difference is that I'm in a setting and a phase of life when daily workouts and healthy meal planning are easier. There's no excuse at all for fast food on the run. And so I'm losing weight, getting firmer, feeling healthy. Regaining my health and fitness was a major retirement goal for me -- a goal I started pursuing before I left my job in Los Angeles and a major part of my lifestyle here.

My neighbor Larry retired late last year from an executive position. The timing seemed right for a lot of reasons, but, once retired, Larry found he wasn't quite ready for a life of leisure. So he is taking charge in a new way by assuming a leadership role in the community and making a difference in a variety of wonderful ways. He's bringing himself with all his organizational skills and high energy into a new passion for community involvement.

When you're asking yourself why you want to retire, it really helps to have a higher balance of positive rather than negative reasons. Envision yourself running to and eagerly embracing a new phase of your life rather than running away from the tedium or worse that you feel on the job.

2, How do you want to retire?
Some people retire gradually, switching from full-time to part-time work in the years just prior to their planned retirement. My husband Bob worked four day weeks the last three years on the job. While this meant taking home less money,  that extra day off, on his own, gave Bob a great headstart on pursuing new interests and structuring a satisfying day alone.

Some people try a gradual retirement with one spouse retiring before the other.  My cousin Caron has done this and she loves the time to see girlfriends, take classes and help to care for her grandkids. Her only complaint is that she wishes she had more leisure time with her husband who only recently cut down from full time to a four day a week arrangement at work.

For some, gradually easing into retirement with part-time work or one spouse retiring before the other, is a way of making this life transition a bit less jolting. It can be especially helpful if you're not quite sure what you want to do once retired. Gradual retirement allows you to test the waters before taking the plunge.

3. When do you want to retire?
For many people, a particular age spells retirement.  Despite current economic realities (or, in some cases, because of them) Baby Boomers are showing a decided preference for retirement at age 62, despite the permanently lower Social Security payment each month.  If money isn't an issue and you really want to retire at that point, there's no reason you shouldn't.

But there's also no reason you should -- just because you're 62 or 65 or 66 and can retire. If you're not ready, why do it?

That's the reasoning of a friend I'll call Corrine (she's a very private person and doesn't want her real name used). Corrine has been with the same company for more than 30 years, enjoys an executive salary and perks and can look forward to retiring with a great pension as well as Social Security benefits. Especially since things are increasingly tense and unrewarding in the culture of her company, her co-workers are stunned that she isn't thinking of retiring now that she is 62.  "I don't want to retire just because I can," she says. "My  greater question is 'What will I do when I leave here? How can I continue to make a difference?'" She is starting to imagine a plan for volunteer work and mentoring with a certain population of women. But for now, she's content to stay put on the job. Her feeling is that retiring prematurely and finding herself wondering what to do next would be more painful for her than dealing with the daily tension of her workplace -- at least for now.

If you really look at what you want in your life now and in the future, you'll know when it's time to retire. And if you're like some Baby Boomers, that time may be years off -- or maybe never.

4. Where Do You Want to Retire?
Some people can't imagine leaving a long established hometown near family and friends. Others enthusiastically take to the road in an RV and live no particular place for years. In between, there are people who choose a retirement home in a new setting or who spend part of the year in their hometowns with another six months in a sunny retirement house or condo.

What's right for you?  Give yourself time -- lots of time -- to consider what would work.

Ten years ago, my husband Bob and I used to dream about retiring somewhere in Hawaii, one of our favorite places on earth. Then, especially as house and condo prices zoomed into the stratosphere, along with the expense of flying to the Mainland to see family and friends, we began to reconsider.

We thought about staying put in our long-time home in Valencia, CA. It's a wonderful community and we loved our modest little home. But there were minuses, too: most residents of Valencia have long commutes into downtown L.A. or the West side of L.A. as we did.  Although our neighbors were lovely people, they tended to be considerably younger and, like us, had demanding work schedules and horrible commutes. No one was in the mood to socialize. Garage doors slammed shut the minute the commuters arrived home. We had some cherished friends in L.A., but our families lived out of state. Every day we battled the traffic, we thought more and more about life with a slower pace, a home in a more rural area.  We also decided that if we were to move, we would want to go to an area with more affordable home prices where we could pay cash for a house with the proceeds from selling our little house in L.A.

 After years of researching communities that were a feasible drive from Los Angeles, so we could occasionally come back and visit friends, we settled on Anthem Merrill Ranch, about half way between Phoenix and Tucson. It includes an all ages section as well as an over-55 section, so isn't exactly a geriatric ghetto. And the community focus on health, wellness and continuing education was just what we wanted.  For us, as we settled into a home twice the size and half the price of the one we left behind and got to know a whole new crowd of lovely neighbors who were as open as we were to new friendships, this was exactly the right choice.

But it wouldn't be for everyone. My friend Pat lives in a lovely home overlooking all of Los Angeles. She inherited this home from her parents and has been working hard to make it uniquely her own while cherishing its connection to her past. Being close to her friends, family and church are all very important to her.  She's a wonderfully adventurous person, but choses to pursue her adventures in travel and in being open to new people and ideas, not in resettling -- and that's exactly the right choice for her.

Making peace with the person you are and what you want in life is an important part of shaping your retirement destiny. Some people we've met here have bounced from one active adult community to another from here to Florida, seeking retirement nirvana. And they're still dissatisfied.  It may well be that where you retire is less important than the thought that goes into it -- what you want and expect and how you deal with the pros and cons you'll find with any decision about where to live.

5.  What will you do?
That's a major consideration.  It helps to have a game plan beyond simple leisure or you may find yourself glued to the couch, the t.v. remote in hand, waiting for your next meal -- and feeling painfully disconnected from life.

Think about things you love to do, causes you'd like to pursue, good works you now have the time and energy to do -- and do these! Set priorities. Have a plan.

My husband Bob's passions in life are music (he plays several instruments), reading and learning.  We're regulars at three local libraries. He is taking classes on everything from theoretical physics to Arizona history and he plays the guitar for at least an hour or two a day, expanding his repetroire and soothing his spirit.

My plan, when I walked out of my office at UCLA for the last time this past April, was to spend the first six months of retirement relaxing, establishing a daily exercise plan, eating sensibly and making friends. No more getting up before dawn. I slept in until -- gasp! -- 7 a.m. It felt deliciously decadent. Bob and I have hit the onsite gym and lap pool nearly every day. And I've spent long, languid afternoons in the outdoor recreational pool getting to know my neighbors. Now the second part of my retirement plan is kicking in: continuing to do all those good things, but also getting back to writing and considering volunteer possibilities.

It's an ongoing process, this life transition, but having a plan from day to day, week to week, helps to ensure that you can do all the things you really want to do.

Paying attention to the emotional aspects of retirement planning is critical in making sure that you retire only when you're ready and in a way, place and lifestyle that is right for you.  As with any transition, there are bound to be some difficult days, times when you have a lingering thought of looking back on your life and wondering what might have been if you had chosen a different path, times when you wonder if you can make a difference once again, times when you have to remind yourself that episodes of depression or anxiety are endemic to the human condition and not a sign that your life is meaningless or that retirement was a mistake.

But when you have given careful thought to why and how and when and where you will retire and what you will do once you reach this life transition, the daily rewards can far exceed even the best of your pre-retirement fantasies!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Six Sex Secrets Men Wish Their Wives Knew

Sex secrets?? When you've been married for twenty or thirty years? Or when you've been having sex with a variety of partners since your youth?

Well, some things may be secrets and other things may be reminders....but there are some sexuality-related issues that still seem to surprise many women. I've seen this often in my work with couples, conversations with friends and consultations with other mental health professionals.  There are some things that men often find difficult to express to their spouses.

Like what?

1. Men do not necessarily have a greater sex drive than women do.
Okay, I'm not talking about teenage boys or college Romeos, but midlife men with families and jobs and mortgages. These men are much less likely to seek sex to meet a variety of emotional needs and more likely to view sex in the context of a love relationship. Sometimes they're tired or stressed and find great pleasure in just being held and touched. There are many ways to express love that have nothing to do with intercourse. At midlife, you may notice that sex drives between the genders are more likely to equalize. Of course, there are variations among both men and women. Some men and women have a high level of desire and others don't.
 In therapy, we're as likely to see an imbalence of desire where a man has a lower sex drive than his wife as we are to see a sexually frustrated husband and a wife with a lower libido.
If there is an imbalance of desire in your relationship, talk about it with understanding instead of criticism. Enjoy the full range of physical and emotional affection - hugging, kissing, cuddling, speaking loving words -- whether or not this leads to intercourse.

2. Men aren't out for just one thing. 
Well, once again, maybe adolescent males are an exception. But maybe not. Males of all ages want to feel cherished, desired and loved.  A mature man in a well-established marriage or long-term relationship wants to nurture and be nurtured in a variety of ways.If he touches you tenderly, this isn't necessarily a sexual overture. Mature men aren't likely to use sex as a means of proving manhood, or boosting self-esteem. If your husband or partner is like most, he wants a partner who listens, a partner with whom he feels safe and loved, as well as a partner who finds him sexually exciting. And many men also want a spouse who challenges them intellectually, emotionally and physically. Sex is just one of many ways of expressing love in a mature relationship.

3. Love is an important factor in male sexual pleasure. 
While flirtation or a fling can be exciting, there's no substitute -- for men as well as women -- for sex with someone who knows you well and loves you not only in spite of but also because of this knowledge. A friend who was a long-time bachelor recently confided to me his delight in married sex: "All that prowling I used to do, all those women...but nothing could begin to compare to the pleasure I feel with my wife.  I used to think variety and conquests kept life exciting. Now I know that the greatest joy of all is with her. She tops them all because we're truly in love. And what a difference that makes."

4. Men Need Foreplay Too.
I remember a client once saying to me "My wife thinks that if I'm not instantly ready to have sex that means I don't find her attractive. But I do! It's just that I need some kissing and touching, too." 
Life doesn't imitate erotic literature or porn. Sex expert Dr. Bernie Zilbergeld has said that "when it turns out that men aren't always ready, women worry about their attractiveness and men their virility."
And some men felt a bit cheated if foreplay is brief or absent.  "It makes me feel special and loved when my wife touches me, strokes me, looks at my naked body with approval, love and downright lust," another male client I'll call Chris told me. "I want this. I savor it when it happens. But it's difficult for me to ask for this.  I love it when she just...well, falls on me and has her way with me."

5. Men don't always want to be the ones to initiate sex.
Chris' last commen mirrors the results of a study done by Dr. Donald L. Mosher and Mark Sirkin on 138 college men at the University of Connecticut.  The study subjects found the idea of a sexually aggressive female exciting.  They were most intrigued by the scenario of sexual partners taking turns initiating sex. Mosher and Sirkin concluded that men were particularly excited by women initiating sex because this made them feel desirable and also because they were relieved of the traditional male responsibility of making sexual overtures and decisions.
While some women hesitate to initiate sex play because they fear putting pressure on their male partners or being rejected, recognizing a man's right to say "No" can take a lot of pressure off both partners. According to Dr. Zilbergeld: "A lot of women simply assume acceptance when they make sexual overtures. But men, just like women, sometimes need to say 'No.'"

6.  Viagra does not produce an instant sexual Superman.
While Viagra can be a real asset to a middle-aged or older man, it doesn't produce an instant erection.  If the man in your life needs to take Viagra or another similar drug to achieve or maintain an erection, give him time and encouragement during the period the drug needs to take effect.  And, instead of lamenting that sexual spontaneity is a thing of the past, savor the joy of anticipation and make taking this pharmaceutical aid part of your sexual flirtation.  Is this a Viagra Night? If it is, rejoice!  And let him see your pleasure in anticipation. Your enthusiasm can be a major boost to his pleasure as well.

Communication is the key to sexual understanding. If you tell each other what you most want or enjoy in lovemaking, you'll be taking an important step toward dispelling old myths and misunderstandings and experiencing new closeness and pleasure together.

We all need to hear words of thanks, support and love, both in and out of the bedroom. This, along with an understanding of the many ways that men and women are more than a little alike, can add immeasurably to the joy of sharing our lives.