Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where Is Home?

Bob and I moved to our spacious new home in Arizona fourteen months ago and have delighted in owning our first brand new house with all the modern conveniences and plenty of space for us, our cats and our hobbies and interests. The neighbors are wonderful, the community welcoming, the pace of living is just what we had hoped. In short, things couldn't be better.

                                   Our home at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch, AZ -2011                

Then how to explain my sudden tears when our next door neighbors Carl and Judith,  while vacationing in Southern California, sent us an online postcard of our Valencia home of 29 years, a house we sold and left 14 months ago?

                              Postcard of our former Valencia, CA home - 2011

"Our home!" I gasped when I saw the picture. I noticed the pines had grown even taller, that the citrus trees inside the gate were in bad need of trimming, that the little flower pot I had put on the gate when our house went up for sale was still sitting there. And, as I studied the photo, tears rolled down my cheeks. I couldn't understand why I was crying. Bob and I have agreed many times that it would be very hard to go back to 1300 square feet after spreading out so happily over 2345 square feet here. It would be very tough to go back to a neighborhood where people were so busy working and commuting that they didn't have the time or energy to get to know each other. The Los Angeles area traffic would be horrible after the freedom of country roads. And yet....

I remember the day we moved into the house in Valenica -- the first we had ever owned. I was 36 and Bob was 37. We were thrilled with the openness of the floor plan that made this little house seem larger. It was almost new: the previous owners had lived there for only a few months before deciding to move back to Canada. They had planted pine trees and built berms in front of the fence in the front of the house, nothing else. Over time, Bob and I added our own touches -- a line of citrus trees producing delicious grapefruit and oranges in winter, fragrant blossons in spring, lush grass, shade trees on the backyard slope and, later on, a beautiful hand set stone waterfall on that slope  that we called "Molly's Falls" in memory of my beloved Aunt Molly who always thought there should be a waterfall there. The sound of the water often soothed my soul after an exhausting day and brought back memories of Aunt Molly and the wonderful times we had together in that house.

                                    Molly's Falls at former home in memory of Aunt Molly

Because my parents died when we were all still quite young, my home in Valencia became the family homestead for my brother and sister, who joined us for many years of holidays, fun visits and quiet talks. Bob and I knew many years of contentment, sitting by the hearth on rainy days, enjoying reading in our living room lined with floor to ceiling bookcases. Our first cat Freddie, the only cat we ever allowed outside, roamed the slope with great pleasure, hunting, communing with neighborhood cats and resting in the shade of the many trees. Twenty-nine years of memories -- both joyous and painful, 29 years of hopes and dreams, 29 years of daily living took place under its roof.

And that little house was our safe haven, our sturdy little home that stood up to a number of challenges.

There was the 1994 Northridge earthquake that awakened us with terror one early morning in January. Everything came out of the kitchen cabinets. Two bookcases crashed over by our bed. The house was a mess and, hampered by lack of running water, it took us more than a week to clean up (trying to clean a mixture of broken glass mixed with Midori melon liquer off the kitchen floor with a bottle of Evian was a real challenge!). But houses nearby were actually split in two by the quake. A whole condo project a few blocks away was destroyed. So, even as we scrubbed, we were thankful that the house itself had stood firm.

A year and a half later, the house next door -- the home of our beloved neighbor Carol Wilson, a 65 year old widow -- caught fire due to an electrical wiring defect in the attic. The fire, undetected, quickly spread throughout the attic, coming down through a ceiling fan outlet in Carol's bedroom, where she was relaxing, watching a Dodger game on t.v.  The flames ignited the oxygen tanks Carol kept by her bed. The house exploded. I was at a nearby supermarket at the time and heard the explosion, which sounded like a sonic boom. I wondered if the space shuttle was landing at Edwards Air Force Base again. Unusual for it to be coming in at 9 p.m. I drove home and rounded the corner to see my own house on fire. It took another moment to realize that the primary fire, the real devastation, was next door. The scene was total chaos with firefighters, police, and a crowd of neighbors. I searched the crowd frantically for Bob, for Carol....The arms of strangers enveloped me as we all came together for yet another neighborhood disaster. Finally, I found the arms of Carol's other next door neighbor Ruth Milne. She held me tight. "She didn't make it," she said softly. We wept together until Bob found us.  Our house was saved. We only lost our roof.  But the loss of Carol saddens me to this day.

And then there was the day in 2003 when, after a difficult recovery from thoracic surgery, I had been called back to work a week early at the psychiatric clinic where I was a therapist. Angry, resentful and still hurting, I went.  And while I was gone, there was a violent break-in at our house.  Gang members from nearby San Fernando chopped in the front door with an axe and upended every shelf, drawer and piece of furniture in the house, stealing jewelry, my laptop computer and some small electronics. We found  our cats Timmy and Gus trembling under the only towel remaining in the linen closet. There was a shoe shaped black smudge on Gus' head. It was weeks before they would go back into the living room.

About that time, my literary agent Susan Protter, on the phone from New York, asked the logical question: "Haven't you ever thought about moving?"

We had thought about it, but this was so much home to us. We decided that only retirement and a really terrific new home and community could make us move.

And so the time came. We found Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch in Florence, Arizona. It was exactly what we had hoped and dreamed.  And we saw a house there, under construction at the time, that was even more than we had dreamed.  Indeed, we had never imagined that we'd be living in such a big, beautiful new home. Everything was -- and is -- perfect or nearly so.

So why did the tears come when Carl and Judith sent us that online postcard of our former home?

Where is home, after all? It's said that home is where the heart is. And our hearts are certainly here in this new home, in this community we truly love. Unless fate somehow intervenes, we expect that it will be our home for the rest of our lives. And yet, it's quite likely that we will probably be here for fewer years than we lived in that modest brown house in Valencia.

I guess the tears were for all the years of living, loving and growing there. The tears were for the memories -- of friendships made and friends tragically lost, for the fragrant citrus blossoms and juicy harvests, for the holidays shared with family, for good times with friends we see less frequently now, for the familiarity and comfort within those walls, for the soothing sound of Molly's Falls.

I guess, however comfortable, content and absolutely joyous life is here, a piece of my heart will always be in that little brown house surrounded by pine trees and soothed by the sound of Molly's Falls.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Retirement Readiness

People have been nagging my friend Nora to retire for years, pointing out that she has an excellent pension plus 401K after 35 years with one employer.  They point out how comfortable her life could be.  But she has always shrugged the advice off with "I'm not ready." And people always look shocked, thinking that she has all the financial resources anyone could want, so what's the problem? But she hasn't felt ready emotionally to make this major life transition. Over time, it has struck me how wise she has been to recognize the considerable difference between financial and emotional readiness for retirement.

There are countless books, numerous online discussions and resources, an explosion of companies ready and willing to help with retirement financial planning. But the financial aspects of retirement, while important, are only part of the equation.

Emotional preparation and planning for this major life transition is as important as financial planning.  Until you know what you want to do and the person you want to be in retirement, the pieces of your new life in retirement won't fit. And all the financial planning in the world won't prepare you fully for life changes linked to the retirement transition -- or for the unexpected.

Perhaps the most important major adjustment in retirement is: to live fully with what is.

Bob and I started serious financial planning for retirement in our forties -- a little later than optimal, but still in time to set some sound financial practices in place and in time to give a lot of thought to the kind of retirement we wanted.  We saved as much as we could. We made the decision to keep living in our modest starter home and pay the mortgage down rather than move up to a grander place. We drove our cars as long as possible.

The last five years, we made major adjustments career-wise. I took a full-time day job in a large organization that offered pensions and 401k's as well as higher salaries than would have been possible elsewhere.  The private practice I loved, as well as my writing, were both relegated to evenings and weekends as I focused on saving money for retirement. It was also a good emotional preparation for retirement to have as my primary occupation a job I didn't especially like: any doubts or conflicts I might have had about leaving the full-time workforce were diminished in those five difficult years. Nora, who was my boss during those years, used to tease me that the job was "your retirement job" meaning that it wasn't my career and would thus be easier to leave without looking back. She was right. Bob worked several years longer than he had planned, compensating a bit by working four day weeks his last four years of employment. We were elated that our savings and home equity were growing steadily and that money would not be a concern.

We also prepared emotionally, as much as possible, for the day when we would step away from our jobs into the next phase of our life together. We asked ourselves what we most wanted to do in retirement and who we wanted to be after our long years of full-time work were over. We discussed life priorities. We explored places to live. We dreamed out loud -- imagining all the things we would do and passions we would re-discover in retirement. When work seemed most tedious, a quick retirement fantasy would bring back our good humor. We both thought a lot about who we were -- and the people we hoped to be.

By the summer of 2008, we had discovered and decided on the community where we wanted to spend our retirement years.  We dreamed of a nice, but not lavish, home there -- exercising, swimming, taking classes on a daily basis. We planned to buy a new car for frequent road trips and made plans for some more extensive, exotic travel. The future seemed blissfully set.

Then came the crash of 2008.  Almost instantly, 40% of our 401K funds and 33% of our home equity vanished.  We wondered if we would be able to retire -- as so carefully planned -- in April 2010. We wondered if we would ever realize any of our dreams.

We began to imagine working until age 70. As an option, that was a mixed bag. Bob's job was very secure, his boss didn't want him to leave and he could easily have worked five or six more years if absolutely necessary. But he had dropped down to four day weeks at age 62 and loved his day off each week. He was eager to move on to full retirement.  My day job wasn't nearly as secure. The department where I worked was in a state of reorganization. There were massive budget cuts in the organization (UCLA).  My job was considered non-essential and my boss Nora had plans to retire within the next few years. I knew I was highly unlikely to have a job there until age 70. We did the math over and over. We re-examined our priorities. And we decided to take the risk of sticking with our original plans to retire in April 2010.

It meant downsizing a few of our dreams and living with what is. But what is has turned out to be very close to that long-planned retirement dream.

We now live in that community we saw and loved in 2008 -- Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch in Florence, Arizona.  While our home equity in California continued to free fall up to the day we sold our home of 29 years, what we came away with was more than enough to pay cash for our dream home here.  In fact, due to the plunge in real estate prices in Arizona, we were able to buy a much larger, more beautiful home here in Arizona than we had ever imagined. We chose not to buy that new car quite yet, realizing that our old car -- a 9-year-old Honda Civic, with low mileage and in excellent condition was up to any trips we might choose to take. We have decided to scale down some travel plans, realizing that extensive international travel was never high on our priority list and we have opted instead to restrict travel, at least initially, only to the places we have most wanted to see.

Life is still very good.  We're comfortable with the limits and tradeoffs.  And so much of our original plan is still intact: we are exercising every day, learning on a daily basis. I'm writing. Bob is making music. We're reading voraciously. We're learning to cook and eat in a healthy way. We swim and socialize more than we ever imagined. We have time to smell the roses and cuddle with our three beloved cats. Emotionally, our retirement is exactly what we had hoped and dreamed.

So if the economy has you wondering about your retirement future, it helps immensely to have a plan for retirement that makes sense emotionally. So, then, whatever happens or doesn't happen financially, you can find a way to have a satisfying retirement or semi-retirement.

Retirement readiness is a key in making sensible choices about which trade-offs and limits work -- and which ones don't work -- for you.

Retirement readiness means much more than straining on the leash to leave a job, office politics, long commutes and days when you feel your time is never your own. It means that you are emotionally ready to run toward something rather than away from something. It means you have an active plan for your immediate and extended future.

Here, from our experience, are the five most important considerations in emotional retirement planning.

1. Have a plan emotionally as well as financially.
How will you structure your life once you retire? Maybe you'll give yourself a transitional vacation and then pursue some new interests, old passions or both in leisure and/or in part-time work. Maybe you'll choose to tweak the lifestyle you have always had, substituting part-time work or volunteer work for full-time work.  What matters most is what feels right to you.

Particularly when your identity is very much tied in with your work, it's especially important to have a transition plan. Think very specifically: what aspects of yourself and your passions do you want to explore once you retire? Start pursuing these before you retire, if possible, to fine-tune your plans, deciding with a clear vision what is going to work for you once you leave your workplace.

My major retirement dream was to reconnect with the work that most defines me -- writing. In the last fifteen years before retirement, I avoided the financial uncertainties of writing by pursuing other careers and jobs that offered more security. I did a bit of writing here and there, but, on a daily basis, I missed it terribly.  However, I didn't plunge into writing projects immediately after I retired in April 2010.  I was so exhausted and depleted that I made a very conscious decision to take a six-month vacation: to rest and exercise and settle in to my new neighborhood without giving any thought to work.  It felt wonderful.  And six months later, I felt refreshed, renewed and ready to start writing again.

It's important to know emotionally what we need as we near and enter retirement. And it's important to examine these needs through the prism of what is. Are you prepared to live on less? What can you do without?

2. Have a clear vision of how and where you want to live.
 Do you need to be near family and see them on a daily or weekly basis? Do you want to break away from the familiar and explore a whole new area and lifestyle? Have you and your partner discussed candidly what it would mean to each of you to relocate? Have you tried out new locations in all seasons? Florida during buggy, humid summers? Arizona and Nevada during blazing hot summer days? Colorado in the winter? It's important to experience a retirement spot in the most challenging -- as well as most attractive -- seasons.

It's also vital to ask yourself if a relocation decision is being made with your own, independent plans and interests in mind. Planning to relocate in order to be closer to adult children and grandchildren can be risky. Some people I know here have adult children who have had to relocate away recently in search of professional advancement or by necessity in a challenging job market -- and their parents are left living in a place they may or may not have chosen, on their own, to spend their retirement years. And some find that life near the kids isn't what they had imagined when they pulled up stakes. Their kids have lives of their own and their parents, while dearly loved, are not necessarily at the center of their lives. Some parents deal with this shift well at close range-- but some don't.

3. Know that retirement can greatly impact your marriage.
 Even long, stable marriages can be shaken by the changes that retirement brings.  Planning your lives together and apart is an important part of retirement readiness.  Do you envision doing some things on your own and some things with your partner? Or do you hope for constant togetherness?

Togetherness can take on a whole new meaning when it is 24/7 -- especially when your time together has been much more limited during your working lives.  A wife who has not worked outside the home may feel that her territory and time has been invaded when her husband is home for good.  Even a dual-career couple can struggle with personal priorities and needs for space after retirement. It can help to anticipate such needs before the fact and plan accordingly.

Bob and I enjoy spending most of our time together. But he likes movies more than I do, so he often goes to the movies on his own while I use the time alone to write or to pursue another interest that we don't necessarily share. One surprise during retirement has been our sometimes conflicting desires to socialize. I like getting together with neighbors and friends and attending community events more often than Bob does. We have agreed that I will do whatever socializing I like and that Bob will join me when he has the inclination. Our friends are very supportive of our agreement -- very happy to see Bob when he chooses to join us, very inclusive of me despite the prevailing couples' culture here.

We see some couples struggle with their interests, needs and priorities, however.  A couple I'll call Ben and Brenda are generally happy. But he likes to read and surf the Internet. She thinks books equal clutter and resents the time he spends on the computer. Her major recreation is shopping, which he hates but gets pulled into because she has given up driving and all major shopping is at least a 30 minute drive.  When they were busy working, their differences weren't quite so apparent. Now, in retirement, they're struggling to find a way to compromise on a daily basis.

4. Prepare for a change in friendship dynamics.
It can also help, in preparing emotionally for retirement, to realize how your changed status can impact friendships. Your friends who are still working will not have the time and flexibility you have in retirement. You may not see them as much as you would like.  If you choose to relocate, you will face the task of keeping up old, now long-distance friendships as well as making new friends. How open are you to making new friendships?

Some fear that it really isn't possible to expand one's circle of trusted friends in late adulthood. But some of us have been surprised, quite happily, to find that it is entirely possible.  "Isn't it amazing?" my neighbor and friend Phyllis observed the other day. "We all started as neighbors. Then we became friends. And now we're family! Who knew that would be possible?"

5. Keep your expectations realistic.
Sometimes reality exceeds our happy expectations.  And sometimes our expectations are altered by reality. A week after I retired and two days after Bob retired, we loaded ourselves and our cats Gus, Maggie and Marina in the car and drove to our new home in Arizona. In general, our first month here was exactly what we had hoped and dreamed. But real life details did intrude. Two weeks after our move, I had an abscessed tooth. Quickly hunting up a new dentist long before I had planned, I had complicated and painful oral surgery. The next week, our beloved cat Marina died, quite unexpectedly, of leukemia. And during all of this, new friendships were developing to soothe our pain and raise our spirits.  Life's ups and downs continue to happen even after you realize your dreams.

I got an email from my friend Nora today. She has finally decided to retire after 35 years at her current job.  Her last day will be next Wednesday, June 29. She says she feels ready at last.  She's anxious, nervous, excited and happy.  Her overwhelming feeling is one of satisfaction in her work and her legacy at her workplace where, for the past year, she has concentrated on getting new positions and promotions for long-time, key employees.  Her generativity has kicked in and she is delighted to have made a difference in the lives of others. She has a plan for her retirement, but is taking three months of delicious, languid vacation first.  She feels she has much left to do in making a difference for others.  She is stepping away from the familiar and running toward a new phase of life with confidence that she knows where she is going and joy in this new life transition. And that makes all the difference!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gus: A Life of Love and Kindness

Whenever I've written a tribute to a special cat, it has been to a cat who has passed away. This tribute is to Gus, who is very much alive, and turning 13 years old this week.

Gus is a big, sweet red/orange tabby whose loving spirit has brightened our lives and the lives of the six other cats -- four now deceased -- that we have had over the years. He is the only cat we have who has known every one of the others.

I wasn't looking for a cat when I first encountered Gus and his brother Timmy.  I went to Dr. Tracy McFarland's office to get more saline solution for our dying 17-year-old Freddie, our first cat. There, in a cage in the lobby, were five beautiful, outgoing kittens who looked like little lion cubs. The receptionist told me that a postal worker had found these five kittens abandoned in a box in a local junkyard.  They had been only three weeks old, not even weaned, and close to death. He brought them in to Dr. Tracy McFarland, known as The Cat Doctor in Santa Clarita, CA.  She spent a month nursing them back to health. The staff bottle-fed and socialized them. Three -- two red tabbies and a calico -- were already adopted. The two remaining -- who saw me and rushed to the front of the cage, making eye contact and purring -- were a red tabby they had named Big Red and Blondie, a Burmese mix with faint red tabby markings. Blondie was the runt of the litter. He had a heart problem that could prove fatal if it didn't correct itself within a year. No one wanted a little kitten who could die. His brother Big Red watched him closely. They slept curled up together. They were so bonded that Dr. Tracy insisted that they be adopted together.

                                         Timmy and Gus as kittens in August 1998                                                                                

I called Bob from the vet's and begged him to come see these kittens. He was aghast. We had a much loved, dying 17-year-old cat who had always been an only animal. Was it fair or even sane to bring in two kittens at this juncture? "I know," I said. "But we have to have these kittens. There's something about them that I can't begin to explain."

Bob arrived at Dr. Tracy's office, took one look at them and fell in love. He took Blondie out of the cage and the kitten rubbed his cheek against Bob's and lay his head on his shoulder, purring loudly. Bob's eyes filled with tears. "Even if he dies soon, no matter how short or long his life is, I want every day of his life to be filled with love and happiness," he said, his voice breaking. "And I want to name him Timmy, the sweetest name I know. We'll take them both."

So Timmy and his brother Big Red -- whom we re-named Gus -- came home with us.  While our old cat Freddie found curious, playful Timmy a bit of an annoyance, he quickly warmed up to Gus.  They shared food. When Freddie could no longer groom himself, Gus would groom him. As Freddie lay on a quilt at the foot of our bed, shivering and nearing death, Gus lay beside him to warm and comfort him.

                                        Gus comforting a dying Freddie in 1998              

The day Timmy and Gus were neutered, Timmy was ill from the anesthetic most of the day -- and Gus held him in his paws, comforting him.

                                       Gus comforts Timmy on neutering day - 1998  

The love between these two brothers brought so much joy to our lives for the next nine years. Timmy's heart problem went away and he grew up healthy and strong.  Timmy, who was outgoing and loved people, eventually became my first therapy cat, working with me in animal-assisted therapy. Gus, who was equally loving but slow to warm up to strangers, limited his affection to our family and his beloved brother.

                                      Timmy (l) and Gus (r) as adults - about 2002 

And when Timmy died suddenly from melamine poisoning due to tainted cat food in 2007, we feared Gus would die as well. Not became of the cat food -- they had eaten different brands -- but because of his grief.  Gus was inconsolable. He howled all night, every night, for three weeks after Timmy's death -- until Dr. Tracy suggested that we get a pair of kittens for him to nurture.

It worked wonderfully.  When we brought home Maggie, a Bombay, and Teddy, a black and white tuxedo kitten, from a local rescue organization, Gus embraced them literally and in spirit. He quickly bonded with Maggie, especially, grooming her, holding her, sleeping with her.  He was fond of Teddy, too, grooming and hanging out with him. But when Teddy died suddenly of a neurological birth defect about a month after we adopted him, Gus was unperturbed. He had his Maggie to nurture.

                                        Gus and Maggie meeting for the first time  - 2007

                                     Gus holding Maggie and grooming Teddy

                                      Gus, Maggie and Teddy settling in for a nap  

A year later, I was in PetSmart to get cat grass for Gus and Maggie. Passing the adoption center, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful flame-point Siamese cat -- a two year old adult -- reaching a paw through the bars -- and I was enthralled. Her name was Marina and she had been relinquished not once but twice in her young life. The first family gave her up because their baby proved allergic to cats. The second family relinquished her because she was too "needy."  As she looked at me with love and longing, I couldn't resist.  There was no kitty grass in stock. We went home with Marina instead.

 Maggie was not amused, growling like a Rottweiler through the closed bathroom door at Marina for the first week she was home. (They later became buddies.) Gus was more enthusiastic, rushing to groom and embrace her.  Marina, who hadn't been with multiple cats before, was wary initially, but warmed to both Gus and Maggie in time.  She also became my second -- and last -- therapy cat, showing an amazing gift for working with clients in conflict.  Shortly after I closed my practice and Bob and I retired, moving to our new home in Arizona, Marina -- a lively, joyous creature -- became quiet and stopped eating. We rushed her to a local vet who told us that she was in end-stage leukemia with multiple organ failure. She died two days later.  The day she died,  Gus  and Maggie were both by her side, offering comfort.

                                         Gus and Marina in 2009

I was heartbroken and in an irrational desire to find another Siamese mix to replace the very loving, cuddly Marina, I searched local rescue organizations. There was a Lynx point Siamese mix kitten at a shelter 40 miles away. Her name was Sweet Pea. She looked irresistible on line. And she has taught me a lesson I should have known: no cat is ever like another.  Sweet Pea is hell on four legs. She can drive Maggie -- and even Gus -- crazy with her kitten antics that have persisted into her second year. But most of the time, Gus is infinitely patient as she nips his ears, his tail and his nose.

                            Gus and Attack Kitten Sweet Pea (aka PsychoPea) 2010          

                                  Gus, Maggie and grown-up Sweet Pea - 2011  

When my husband Bob suffers nightmares related to his temporal lobe epilepsy, Gus is quickly by his side. When I am reading in the evening, Gus snuggles up beside me, purring and rubbing. When I have a migraine headache, Gus is there instantly to comfort me and keep me company.  In all his years with us, he has never scratched or bitten anyone -- even kids who have picked him up or strangers who have rushed to pet him. He is the kindest, most gentle cat I have ever known. And he is a warm, droll companion, enjoying football games with Bob, watching with quiet bemusement as I practice tap dancing.

                                        Bob and Gus enjoy Alabama football game - 2010

                                      Gus Keeping Bob company on a sick day - 2011        

                               Maggie and Sweet Pea are quick to follow Gus' example

He is an old thirteen. He used to jump great heights to run along the tops of our library bookcases. His jumping days are over.  His gait has slowed. His days are spent snoozing between the pillows of our bed or in the little bed he has had since he was a kitten.  We wonder if he had some exposure to the tainted cat food melamine that killed Timmy. Or perhaps the loss of his brother and other feline pals has weighed heavily. Or maybe he is just getting old along with us, savoring the days, and committed to live in a spirit of love and kindness.  Not a day goes by that Gus doesn't give us the gift of his warmth and affection. And not a day goes by that we don't delight in his gentle, sweet presence. We consider every day we still have Gus a blessed one. We want every day of his life to be filled with love and happiness.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fitting In

Cooling down from a workout at the gym the other day, I started talking to Kim, a bright, energetic woman I often see there. We were talking about ways we don't fit in here. Unlike many of our female neighbors, we hate shopping, have no interest in fashion, detest card games, avoid any day trips having to do with casinos and aren't into crafts.

We agreed that this didn't make us feel superior to our neighbors. To the contrary, it made us wonder whether we really fit in.

"I buy all my clothes online at Lands End," Kim said. "Shorts and t-shirts. That's it!"

"Me, too!" I said smiling. "These shorts, my daily outfits -- mail order -- all of them."

As we discussed the sparse exercise class schedule for summer, Kim said "I spoke to the Fitness Director and he said they aren't scheduling classes until November because nobody is here. I guess we're nobody."

I smiled. "Then there's a pair of us. Don't tell! They'll banish us, you know."

Kim laughed with recognition at the quote from Emily Dickinson.

There is a thrill in discovering a kindred spirit.

And yet, reflecting on the whole concept of fitting in to this over-55 community in rural Arizona, I have come to realize that, for all my peculiarities, I do have a wonderful feeling of fitting in.  So many people around me -- who do not share my questionable taste in clothes, my equally questionable politics and few, if any, of my interests -- have become very dear to me. And I feel accepted, in turn.

My next door neighbor Louise is a sweet, tough, generous soul as well as a very gifted artist and makes beautiful ceramic pieces. She gave me a lovely vase she made just for my birthday and it has become a favorite on my display case. Her joyous spirit brings me pleasure on a daily basis.  My neighbor Phyllis, who lives three doors down from me, grew up in circumstances very different from my own and her worldview and experience are all quite different. Yet I treasure her friendship, good talks and time shared and greatly enjoy her insights and perspectives. I also admire her courage in her fight against cancer and her  resolve to live life fully every day. My other next door neighbor Judith is a dedicated Republican whom I greatly admire because she is fully committed to her political beliefs and causes. She doesn't just voice her views. She does the hard work of knocking on doors, making phone calls, planning events featuring political candidates.  While my views may differ, I respect her integrity and hard work -- and enjoy her very much as a person.

What we all tend to share in this community is age and a certain slice of life experience: when the music system at the pool plays Beatles tunes or Doo Wop hits, our eyes light up with recognition and memories from the music of our youth.  We all have aches and pains and health concerns -- and are doing our best, in a variety of ways, to stay active. Most women here are grandmothers and delight in talking about their children and grandchildren. I'm childless and don't share that critical life experience, though I enjoy seeing pictures and hearing stories about the young ones.  While many women I know here have lived much more traditional lives than I, there is little comparison or criticism. We seem to have made an unspoken pact to enjoy each other in the present moment, as is, with no judgment.

And I think about the bad old days of grade school and junior high when fitting in was such a challenge, when wearing the wrong label or having a bad hair day or just not being cute or cool could cause one to be ostracized and ridiculed. Or even in young adulthood when having a different point of view or life plan could make one suspect. And I could be just as judgmental as any -- if I perceived someone as stupid or shallow or Republican or not having much in common with me, I wasn't interested in knowing them.

Life is different now.

While I greatly miss regular face-to-face contact with some lifelong friends who have shared both youth and aging with me, I'm delighted with new friends here who come with such a rich variety of life experiences, interests and perspectives. We may not always agree, but we tactfully avoid the sensitive areas of politics and religion. We accept each other as is: quirks, eccentricities and all. While it can be a special pleasure to discover a new friend who shares interests, phobias and a particular point of view, those whose interests and experiences differ significantly can be delightful as well. We've all given up on cute and cool and have come to appreciate authenticity. And I wonder how much I missed in the past by passing judgment so quickly and unfairly on those who were not like me.

One of the lovely bonuses of getting older and wiser is seeing the value of differences as well as similarities in the friends, both old and new, who bring such joy to our lives.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Father's Day: Remembering a Complicated Love

There aren't any Father's Day cards made for the kind of Father I had.

He wasn't a benevolent Daddy. He wasn't a pipe-smoking golfer or a duck hunter or the bland but benign Dad of 50's situation comedies. He wasn't a good-natured guy who brought home the bacon.

He was a difficult, conflicted man. Although charming to co-workers and employees, he could be a beast at home. Though sometimes tender as a parent, he could also terrorize. Though he has been dead for more than 30 years, I can still feel the impact he had on my life.

My father was, at once, nurturing and encouraging, abusive and devastating. "You think I'm crazy?" he would shout. "Well, you kids made me that way. Having children ruined my life. Everything was great until you came along. Marriage with children is the absolute, complete catastrophe of my life."  The words stung more than I knew. For many years, well into adulthood, I carried the heavy burden of knowing that my father's life had taken a horrible turn the minute I, the firstborn, came into the world.

 He could be monstrous. He would stagger drunkenly around the house, waving a loaded gun, threatening to kill us. Mike, Tai and I would retreat to the bedroom we three shared and push our dresser firmly against the door to keep him out. Then we would lie flat on the floor, afraid to breathe, to sleep, to cease our vigilance.  He was frighteningly abusive to Mike especially -- beating him into unconsciousness, forcing him to wear one of my dresses when he thought Mike was being a sissy for crying during a beating, once giving him what he claimed was a lethal injection and chuckling as Mike and I sat up all night, clinging to each other, sobbing and waiting for Mike to die. He would fly into rages and scream that he hadn't been able to fly in combat in World War II, having to settle for being a stateside test pilot, that his dreams for medical school and a career as a physician never became reality because of us. At such times, we would do anything possible to stay out of his way.

On the other hand, he could be surprisingly gentle, loving and encouraging. He held me in his arms and cried when I was diagnosed with polio at age six. He encouraged me to start writing as soon as I learned to read. He emphasized, over and over, as I was growing up the importance of getting a good education, having a direction in life, planning a lifelong career. He tutored me in math, my least favorite subject, insisting that I was buying in to society's limitations on women's achievement by thinking I couldn't do math. He wanted me to succeed and encouraged me every step of the way at every level of school.

The dramatically different aspects of his personality and parenting were scary and confusing.  As a child, I often wondered what caused his erratic behavior. And as I grew older, he told me stories about his own childhood and I began to understand, at least a little.

He had adored his father, a gentle, scholarly man who didn't believe in hitting kids to discipline them. Prompted by his wife's shreiks to "Take this boy to the woodshed and heat the tar out of him!",  Henry would walk slowly to the woodshed with Jim, whip in hand. They would sit and talk, his father explaining why what he did was wrong, how he needed to change this behavior. Eager for approval, my father would agree, tears in his eyes for disappointing his Dad. When they emerged from the woodshed, his mother would see the tears and nod with satsifaction. His father, an attorney who worked with under-served minorities in Tucson, Arizona,  occasionally took him along to visit clients -- Chinese immigrants and Native Americans. Jim would watch, fascinated, as Henry spoke Chinese and Navajo with his clients, watch the mutual respect, enjoy treats offered -- lychee nuts and fry bread. He thought his father was the greatest person in the world.

                                  Baby Jim and his beloved father Henry in 1913      

Unfortunately, his father died when he was only eight years old. He had gone to Mexico to seek treatment for a disorder that my father always suspected was pernicious anemia and he had died there. His mother couldn't bear to tell her young children that their father was dead -- so she didn't. She told them that he was on a long business trip.

Six months after his father's death, classmates at his Catholic elementary school teased Jim about his father's death: "Your Daddy's dead! Your Daddy's dead!"

"No he's not!" Jim yelled back. "He's on a business trip! My Mom said so!" A group of classmates took him to the cemetery near the church and showed him his father's grave.  Jim fell on the grave, screaming and sobbing. The intensity of his grief was so frightening, the other boys ran away. When he told me this story, more than 50 years later, tears rolled down his cheeks.

When he got home and confronted his mother about it, she beat him and threatened further mayhem if he dared tell Molly the truth. So it would be another five years before Molly would find out that her Daddy was dead.

                                          Jim, Molly and their Mother in 1921  

Soon after, his mother, quickly losing her grip on sanity and sobriety, moved the family from Tucson to Los Angeles so my father could support the family by working in the movies and in vaudeville. He hated acting but was good at it -- and it was something he felt he had to do.  The family lived in a boarding house in downtown Los Angeles. His mother mostly drank. And when money was tight, she would beat  and berate Jim for not being a better provider.  So, in addition to his film and vaudeville work, he started selling and delivering The Saturday Evening Post and doing night janitorial work at the Central Market in downtown L.A.  And after his mother died of alcoholism when Jim and Molly, who had skipped three grades, were teenage college students, Jim continued to work multiple jobs to support them and get both himself and Molly through college at UCLA.

                                    Jim in movie publicity still about 1924
                                    (The freckles are mostly make-up for the film!)            

Hearing his stories about the hardships of his early life, I would bristle with anger. "Your mother was a horrible person," I would say. "She had an education. She was an English teacher before she married. How dare she take your childhood away and demand that you support the family and then beat you for not being a better provider?"

My father's face would soften. "Oh, no," he would say. "She was a wonderful person in so many ways. I guess you had to have been there."

As a parent, my father showed signs of his own father in gentle storytelling and encouragement to grow, but more signs of his brutal, drunken mother in angry words, belittling, beating, lashing out in fury. I alternately loved and feared him. When he would go on business trips, we all -- my mother included -- would call that time "The Golden Opportunity" to have fun, to relax, to live without fear.

On my 13th birthday, he lost his executive-level job in a corporate merger -- but, really, because of his alcoholism.  He was never able to get another one.  He started a small manufacturers' rep business, selling rubber magnetic strips cut to order.  The cutting was done with an ancient punch press without a guard device. He decided that we -- Mike, Tai and I -- should run the punch press -- a scary mini-guillotine -- "because I'm the breadwinner and if I lose a finger or part of my hand, it would be a disaster. You're just a kid. If you lose a finger, it doesn't really matter."

Despite our efforts, the business never really took off. Father continued to drink, could never get up before noon and rarely made the sales calls necessary to help the business grow. We slid from upper middle class to near poverty.  And an atmosphere of chaos and despair settled over the household.

                               Unhappy Family Man - Summer 1966 - with, from left:
                               Tai, 11, Mike, 17, Mother, Father, and me, 21.            

As an adult, I felt sadness for father's pain and disappointments and his ailments  -- diabetes, Parkinson's, heart disease -- and fury at his rejections and belittling. He tossed my first book - THE TEENAGE BODY BOOK -- the only one of my books that my parents would live to see published -- aside, calling it "dirty and disgusting." He refused to meet Bob or my sister's first husband Larry, locking himself in the bedroom when we would come over. My sister eloped. Bob and I had a lovely wedding -- which he boycotted.

The day he died, my mother and I were going through his safe, looking for his military discharge papers to give to the mortuary for veteran's benefits for his funeral. She picked up a manila envelope and handed it to me.

"Take this home and read this," she said. "It's important that you read it. It will explain a lot."

It was a transcript of the divorce proceedings from his brief first marriage. In this, his wife Mary and her mother described in detail his outrageous, abusive behavior. I gasped as I read their testimony. So he was like that long before I entered the world. I didn't ruin his life after all. The weight of that responsibility slipped off my shoulders and soul.  I felt instantly lighter. I hadn't realized the burden I had been carrying.

In the months after his death, I felt so much bitterness and anger fall away as I reflected on the pain of his life, the disappointments and dreams that, for a variety of reasons, none related to his family, didn't come true.

And yet, I can see him in all our dreams that did come true.

Mike would live Father's dreams -- for his own reasons, not for Father: he was a fighter pilot in combat in Vietnam and, when he returned home, he went to medical school at Stanford. A noted physician and expert in medical informatics, he is currently affiliated with both Harvard Medical School and USC after many years as the CIO of UCLA Medical Center.  The battered little boy his father said would never amount to anything has become what his father wanted to be but could never be: a sober, successful physician and a consistently loving, nurturing father.

In fact, Mike closely resembles the loving Dad our father lost too soon: the physical resemblance is startling and he is also a gentle, scholarly man who doesn't believe in hitting children to discipline them. Like the grandfather he never knew, he speaks multiple languages fluently and has a fascination with Asia. Our grandfather lived in China for some years in his youth. Mike has lived in Thailand and now, married to a wonderful Thai woman, splits his time between homes in the U.S. and Thailand.

Tai, whose strong spirit and warm, loving nature were evident early on as she sat with our mother in the bathroom during gall bladder attacks, holding her head as she vomited and saying softly "Mommy, I won't leave you."  eventually became the caring and competent nurse that our parents were convinced she could -- and should --be.

And, though he took issue with some of my subject matter,  I became the writer Father always encouraged me to be.

As Father's Day approaches once again, I think about my father.  I feel immense sadness at the pain of his life and sadness that he passed the pain on to his own children. I feel grateful for the resilience my siblings and I had in making our own lives. I feel regret that he wasn't able to share in the happiness of our marriages and career milestones. I'm sorry that he didn't get a second chance at loving via grandparenthood. He died many years before either Nick or Maggie were born.

But I don't feel angry or bitter or cheated. I'm delighted to have had a father who, during moments of sobriety, was intellectually stimulating, a great story-teller.  I feel fortunate to have had a father who expected much from me, who encouraged my writing and overcoming societal constraints on women, even before Betty Friedan and other feminists challenged the social order. I feel grateful to have known him. And I feel a surge of warmth and of surprise when I remember that, as much as I feared him, I also loved him.

For in between the brutality and anger and bitterness, he was wonderful in many ways.  I guess you had to have been there.

                               Family Portrait 2011: Mike, his wife Amp and daughter
                              Maggie, me and my husband Bob

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Quiet Endings

There is a time in our lives when it seems that our parents will be there forever, when we get out of bed in the morning without a single pain, when our career dreams seem infinitely possible.

And there is a time in our lives when we know that our parents -- and ourselves -- are not exempt from mortality, when everything hurts first thing in the morning and when our career highlights are in the past or largely so. And when endings no longer surprise us, but still tug at our hearts.

I had such a moment yesterday, when Susan Ann Protter, my long-time literary agent, called to say that she was retiring and closing her agency. Why did I imagine that she would go on forever? Why did I feel a twinge at her retirement -- at age 71, for heavens sake? We talked about the recent loss of her beloved dog. We talked about the difficult logistics of closing an agency where dozens of royalty accounts for books sold remain active and must be passed on to another for safekeeping. And we talked about the past.

When we first encountered each other in 1976, I was an established magazine writer dreaming of writing books. But her interest wasn't sparked by one of my articles or a query. She saw the clarity and passion of my writing in an angry letter.

I had written it to a New York psychologist who wanted to collaborate with me on a book. After he had gone through four or five agents and refused to consider any changes to  a seriously flawed proposal, I wrote an angry but measured letter pointing out the proposal's conceptual and structural problems. He sent my letter to Susan, the latest agent he was trying to persuade to represent him, with a note that "I've found a new and wonderful writer!" She read the letter and liked my writing style, but didn't want to have anything to do with the psychologist. She called to ask if I had any other ideas I could do on my own or with someone else. I had longed to write a book on teenage health and sexuality with my friend Chuck Wibbelsman, a physician specializing in adolescent medicine. Two months later, she sold that book to Simon and Schuster and "The Teenage Body Book" was born. It won the "Best Book for Young Adults" award from the American Library Association a year after its initial 1979 publication. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies world wide in a number of foreign language and domestic editions. The latest U.S. edition was published by Random House in 2008.

"It will probably be the last," Susan said yesterday. "Dr. Oz is coming out with a book on teenage health. It will probably be the death knell for "Body Book."

"Probably," I said. "But it has had a nice, long run."

So have we, Susan and I.  It hasn't always been easy.  Susan tells you what you need to hear, not always what you want to hear, but I've learned, over the years, to trust her judgment implicitly.  On two occasions, I overruled her judgement -- both for financial reasons -- and turned out to regret my decisions -- once with a book that had a bad contract that ended up causing me no end of grief and once with a year-long speaking tour that disrupted my smooth writing schedule and was the beginning of a downward slide in my career.  And there were the times when I left her agency -- once in a fit of omnipotence, once in a move to get my career back on track -- and each time I ended up coming back. There were times of anger and times of triumph and times of delightful mutual understanding.  In short, over the years, we became family.

Because she is family, Susan's closing her agency doesn't mean closing the door on our relationship.  I will always care how she is doing and feeling and what she is up to.

And because I'm not ready to retire as a writer, I will work with another agent, Gene Brissie, on future projects. Gene is a fairly new agent but has spent more than 30 years as an editor and publisher at major New York publishing houses. We first met when he was a very young editor at Simon and Schuster and his first editorial project was the original "Teenage Body Book" in 1979.  Gene is also a skilled professional and someone who will tell me what I need to hear, not always what I want to hear.  He is also someone with whom I share a long history and a professional yet familial relationship.

But there will never be anyone in my life quite like Susan -- with her larger than life personality, her tendency to be blunt, occasionally outrageous, always caring. Who knew all those years ago what a long and productive professional path we would travel -- and, despite or maybe even because of all the conflict and pain, shared victories and adventures in the changing world of publishing -- how much I would grow to love her?

We've had a good long run, indeed, Susan.  May retirement be another good long run and excellent adventure!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Retirement Nightmares: A Different View

Not long ago, a local newspaper ran a story about Ralph Ver Ploeg, a 75-year-old Mesa, Arizona man who works the drive-through line at a McDonald's in neighboring Gilbert. People opt eagerly for his line, even if it moves a little slower than the other. Why? Because, in addition to his order-taking efficiency, Ralph asks how a customer's day is going. He delights in hearing their news and offers support to people struggling through a job loss or divorce. He's kind. He cares. And his goodbye is "God bless."

In some ways, Ralph would seem to be living a old-age nightmare: he needs to work to supplement his retirement benefits. He was laid off from a full-time job in security two years ago and was unable to find full-time work. So he applied for part-time positions and landed at McDonald's.  He sees the lay-off as a great blessing because it brought him to the drive-through and the opportunity to share his love for God and life in general with hundreds of people a day.  His eyes filled with tears as he talked with the reporter about his job: "I love it so much. I feel that my whole life has been in preparation for this."

Such a positive attitude in the face of harsh economic realities is an inspiration and a lesson in making the most of what life brings.  I've seen seniors with so much more in material comforts complaining about being bored or not having friends or a spouse not being available enough -- or being too present -- and I can't help but think what we can learn from peers who seem so rich with so much less.

I have a dear friend I'll call Joe. I met Joe about twenty years ago in graduate school when I went back for a clinical Master's in psychology. When he walked into the classroom for the first time, clad in jeans and a Laker's t-shirt and speaking with a heavy New York accent, he seemed like a big, personable jock. Not surprisingly, he was a high school teacher and coach. I was shocked to discover, some weeks later, that he was, not so incidentally, a Catholic monk.

Initially, my reaction was to avoid him. A lapsed Catholic, I didn't want to get into a discussion of my issues with the Church.  "But you don't understand," he said, sitting beside me at the dinner break one day. "I'm in a period of my life when I'm questioning so much. I really would like to talk with someone who has questioned, too." With our questioning, our doubts, our stresses in working full-time while taking on a demanding graduate program, we became fast friends.  In our classroom clinical exercises, Joe showed promise of being an excellent therapist: he listened, remembered, encouraged, was down-to-earth, used humor appropriately and cared deeply.  Although he ultimately decided to transfer to the non-clinical program to become a school counselor, we still met for dinner breaks. On graduation day, we went out for a celebratory dinner together with our families.

In the years since, life has been less than kind to Joe.  He made the painful decision to leave the religious order he had entered at the age of thirteen. He taught religion and ethics at various Catholic high schools. He fought bouts of depression as he struggled to make his own way in the world after more than 40 years in a religious order. He went back to New York to care for his mother during her last illness. Some years passed. After her death, he headed back to California where, now 65, he has struggled to find work. He put in applications for substitute teaching. Nothing. He worked at Home Depot where, as the most recently hired, he was laid off in a cutback. He is currently living mostly in his 15-year-old car with his beloved dog and is surviving on lean Social Security benefits -- lean because, for the more than 40 years he worked as a religious order teacher, the Church did not pay into Social Security. His benefits cover only the last 15 years of his work since he left the order.  But he isn't complaining. He sees life as a blessing and a chance to reach out.  

Talking with a depressed teenage girl in a park one day, he dug deep into his suitcase of his life's treasures and gave her a copy of the 1994 edition of my "Understanding Teenage Depression" book that I had signed and given to him all those years ago, encouraging her to take it home and share it -- and her feelings -- with her parents.  He found a $5 bill on the sidewalk one day and invited another homeless man to enjoy a feast with him at a local fast food restaurant. He is upbeat about his situation. "Sure I'd love to be working, teaching, again," he says. "I'm going to keep applying for teaching jobs, for any jobs. But I feel blessed. I've made peace with myself. Even if nothing changes, I'm a happy man. I'm living in an area I love. I have my faithful, sweet dog. I feel God is with me. I enjoy the sunshine and the ocean air. I can laugh at myself and at life. I have no regrets and wonderful memories. I loved my time as a monk. I loved teaching and doing missionary work in New Guinea. And studying psychology was such a gift. Think of it -- me, this poor kid growing up in a tenement in New York. What a great life I've had! Sure, I'm broken in some ways. I know now that depression is in my genes. My father self-medicated with alcohol. I take medication. Life isn't always easy. But I'm blessed. I still love. I still laugh. I still have so much to give, however I find a way. My goal is random kindness every day I live."

I marveled at his enthusiasm as we spoke on the phone.  I've been plagued on occasion by bag lady fantasies and have wondered how I would cope if I were to lose everything and be looking at growing old on the margins of society.

Perhaps those challenges are not the worst nightmares of old age after all. Maybe there is more to fear from what I see from some other peers:  pettiness, boredom, selfishness, bigotry, unkindness or complacency.

I don't know if I would be as gracious as Ralph Ver Ploeg if I found myself working the drive-through at McDonald's or as kind and giving as Joe if I found myself homeless. But the lessons they can teach on savoring an unlikely opportunity, counting blessings, living with kindness and gratitude and love every day are priceless. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Used To Be

Some years ago, I was on a book tour when a familiar face appeared at my last television stop in Oklahoma City.  She was my favorite (and toughest) former Northwestern University journalism professor Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita. Elizabeth was a tough on the outside, soft on the inside Australian, big, blonde, larger than life, a sort of female Crocodile Dundee. She was a noted journalist teaching part-time when we first encountered each other at Northwestern. Her other world was at Time-Life where she was an investigative reporter for Fortune magazine.

By this time, she had shifted the focus of her career to mostly academic pursuits and was now dean of the journalism school at the University of Oklahoma. She planned to write books when she retired six years hence. Thus, I was surprised when she replied to the television producer's question about whether she was a journalist, too. "I used to be," she said softly.

My heart sank. Used to be. There was nothing "used to be" about Elizabeth. In my mind, she was still a journalistic star, still a contender, and was choosing, as well, to pass her craft on to new generations. How could she be talking about "used to be"?

I told her the phrase made me sad, like she was giving up a part of herself

"I not finished," she said. "Just growing on."

The conversation has stayed with me through many of my own life changes.

The other day, in the gym, a fellow exerciser was talking with my husband Bob about his concern over his wife's serious depression. When I joined them, the man smiled and said. "I heard that you're a therapist."

I felt a mix of emotions -- wishing I could help, especially when I heard how difficult it was to get psychotherapy in this rural area. But my licensure is in California, not Arizona.  I made the decision to retire from practicing psychotherapy to concentrate on writing once again when we moved last year. I can't legally practice in Arizona.

"I used to be a therapist," I said at last. And it only stung for a moment, mostly because I wanted to help more than I was able.

We say "used to be" at major transitions points in our lives -- as we look back to the certainty of what was as we stand poised for the uncertainty of the future.

I remember my first night at the freshman dorm at Northwestern University.  We all sat in the hall that night, trying to look cool and not nearly as scared as we were. Many smoked for the first time. We shared stories about the big shots we used to be in high school. We were trying to hold onto our specialness, trying to impress each other. But we were in for a shock: we had all been high school superstars. When I said that I had been editor of my high school newspaper and co-editor of the yearbook, there were echoes down the hall "So was I." "Me, too."  "Count me in as well."

My shoulders sagged and I wondered if I would ever be special again. Only a few weeks later, I found myself excited and happy to be surrounded by so many bright peers who shared my passions.

It isn't all that different in early retirement when, at least initially, who you are in your own mind is more the person you used to be rather than the person you're becoming. It's harder for some than others. Observing people whose retirement wasn't voluntary,  I see some of them choke on the words "used to." Others scramble to find a new cause, a new identity, to fill the gaping hole of loss.

There can, indeed, be a grieving period when one steps away from a career that has meant so much, even if that step is completely voluntary. I see it in retirement. And I saw it throughout my working life.

I have some experience with stepping away, winding down, one career in favor of another -- and grief has been a part of each transition.

My first five years after college, I had two demanding careers: I was a writer and editor on the staff of a national magazine and I was a professional actress, doing stage, television and voice-overs. When I was 27 and in the middle of a run of the musical "High Button Shoes" starring Gavin MacLeod, I came to the painful conclusion that while I liked acting, I didn't like the business. It wasn't a good fit for me emotionally. Even those of us who were working at least a little in the business experienced so much rejection and insecurity. I saw very talented actors who were not stars -- though they deserved to be -- aging, working less as actors and more in marginal part-time jobs. And I didn't want that to be me. So I decided to quit,  once the show closed,  and concentrate on writing. Although I ended up doing one more show -- "Dylan" -- ironically, my favorite acting experience -- I stepped away from acting forever when I was 28.  I shed a lot of tears in the process of deciding and, again, after my last curtain call. Then I walked away and haven't looked back.

I used to be an actress. I can say it with wonder and amusement now. It seems like another lifetime, though my acting experience was very helpful when my writing career blossomed and I was a frequent guest on national television talk shows. I never felt that my time as an actress was wasted. It just prepared me to "grow on" as Elizabeth put it.

And twenty years later, when publishing began to change and my once flourishing writing career took a dive, I went back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist -- both to gain more credibility as a writer and to have an alternate gig to keep me afloat financially.  The transition wasn't easy. I shed a lot of tears over the downturn in my writing career.  Pursuing a whole new career demanded that I grow in very  different ways. But through all the hard work in school, in clinical internships and in establishing a private practice, I never even thought "used to be" when I thought of writing.  Even though my career as a therapist took a much larger portion of my time during the last 15 years of my working life, I was always, at heart, a writer first, though I loved reaching out and helping others as a psychotherapist.

Today, I can smile and say that I used to be an actress and a therapist.  I learned and grew so much from each career, each life experience -- and now I've come full circle back to writing. But it's different. The book contracts aren't lined up anymore. The national television shows aren't calling.  But I don't focus on what used to be.  I'm happy and growing and optimistic whatever happens.

I realize that I am fortunate to be rediscovering a passion. We all find our own ways to define our lives and life purpose in retirement.

Some find happiness and purpose by being only semi-retired. A former university physics professor who lives nearby is transitioning from college teaching to teaching physics at the local high school. He has taught there for two years and just signed up for one more. Then, he says, he will be ready to fully retire. Another neighbor, who found that he very much missed his managerial position in a major corporation, has become involved in local politics and city planning -- and finds that this gives the structure to his days that he so missed in his first months of retirement.  His wistful "I used to..." has become an excited "I am...."

Others find fulfillment by using the skills of a lifetime of living and working to help others as community volunteers.

Still others, who made a smooth transition from employment to full retirement, share excitement and wonder at pursuing so many interests and activities so long deferred and now quite possible.

Perhaps, whether or not we choose to launch new careers or to discover or rediscover passions, we need to counter all  of our "I used to" feelings with affirmative "I am.." statements.

So here's the list I'm just starting:

I used to be young.  Now I'm young in spirit.
I used to be slim.  Now I'm working on reaching a healthy weight.
I used to dance. Now I exercise more than I have in decades.
I used to have an exciting career. Now I get excited by daily life.
I used to be sort of, almost, famous.  Now I am content.
I used to think if I could reach another career milestone, I would be happy. Now I am happy.

We can allow our thoughts about what was, what used to be, to cloud our vision of today. We can look back wistfully to the days when we had small waists and firm thighs, big dreams for the future and a myriad of options. Or we can focus on the people we've become, who we are right now. And we can celebrate the ways that we've grown on through a lifetime of challenges and triumphs to the wonderful possibilities of today.