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!