Thursday, July 28, 2011

Vacation or Staycation?

Our next door neighbors Larry and Louise just returned from a family vacation in Lake Tahoe and then a week visiting with their dearest friends who now live in Utah. It seemed like an excellent idea at the time and, indeed, it was good for them to meet up with their Washington-based kids and grandkids at a lovely Lake Tahoe condo and to see their special friends at their beautiful lakeside home in Utah. Except -- they realized at some point early in the vacation -- maybe it would have been better to do all that wonderful visiting right here.

The weather at Lake Tahoe was cold and cloudy the whole week, much too brisk for swimming. The kids and grandkids were all sick ("There were wails of 'Grandma!!' followed by bouts of projectile vomiting," Louise recounted with a shudder. "Five times in one night! We were all exhausted.")  They clustered miserably in the condo watching videos for the rest what proved to be a rather long week.

By the time Larry and Louise started their second week of vacation at their friends' house, their little spaniel Abby's vacation dietary changes were catching up with her in the form of persistent diarrhea. "So, for three nights, we got up four and five times a night to rush Abby outside and then hose her down afterwards," Larry told us, sighing deeply. They finally headed home a day early.

Sitting in our living room this afternoon, recounting their adventures for Bob, Phyllis, Wally and me, Larry said "We had to come home to recuperate from this vacation."

"We've asked ourselves over and over the past two weeks," Louise added. "What were we thinking? Why did we go on this trip? From now on, people can just come see us!"

Phyllis and Wally nodded with particular sympathy. They recently returned from a trip to Europe. While their journey had none of the stomach-churning lowlights of Larry and Louise's travel adventure and was actually fun and enlightening, they recounted difficulty with the walking tours over the cobblestone streets they encountered in the river cruise of Germany. "I don't think we will be taking any more active excursions like that," Phyllis said. "At our age, it's getting hard to keep up."

Bob and I looked at each other. We're next on the vacation lineup with a trip to our beloved Maui this fall. It will be the first vacation we've taken since we retired.

All the years I worked, vacations were a beacon of light on the horizon, treasured time that was mine. I would start the count-down in months, then weeks, then days, eagerly anticipating leisure time in exotic places. And I heard about retired people taking vacations and also wondered what that would be like. Some were taking long deferred trips to see the world. Some were off on educational or charitable adventures. Some were re-connecting with far-flung kin. How different, I wondered, was a vacation from a daily lifestyle that seemed like a vacation? My question was reinforced by the fact that, for the last two summers of my working life, my vacation destination was right here at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch. I treasured each delicious day of swimming and working out and living, albeit temporarily, in such a friendly community.

Now that this community is our home, now that I'm retired from everything but writing and my husband retired from everything but his passions for music, learning and fitness, I know that retirement is not exactly like a vacation. Life happens. Bills need to be paid. Doctor, dental and vet appointments dot the calendar. Home and yard maintenance require certain chunks of time. It's not exactly a tough life, to be sure, but it isn't like swaying in a hammock on a tropical isle either.

And yet, there are times, as we tend to our neighbors' pets when they're off for a myriad of destinations, we notice that they're more eager to get home than we all used to be when we were working.

In so many ways, it makes sense: we've built our retirement nests with so much comfort and enjoyment at our fingertips: our hobbies, our beloved pets, our friends, the resort-style amenities right here. Why do we even think of leaving for a week or two or three?

Suddenly, the concept of staycations instead of vacations is beginning to make sense.

Staycations have become increasingly common in the wake of the Great Recession when, for many families, travel has become an unaffordable luxury. The Staycation or stay-at-home vacation lacks the stress of airline security, sardine style economy seating, or long, hot car trips. You can sleep in your own bed with your own pillows. You can continue to enjoy the company of your dog or cat. Your time, for a week or two, if you're still working, is your own.

Besides all that, how would the ideal Staycation work? How do you keep real life from intruding when you stay home to relax? Should mail be held? Should there be a blackout period of obligations and appointments, as if you were out of town? Would you prefer to eat more meals out? Would you enjoy indulging in some long-postponed local sightseeing?

A case can be made, certainly, for vacation travel. Visiting places you've dreamed of seeing can be fantastic.

My Aunt Molly spent the early years of her retirement on dream trips: a Mystery Writer's tour of Scotland Yard and historic crime scenes in London and, later on, a trip to Ireland where, with two friends, she drove all over, stayed in bed and breakfast establishments and surveyed the pub scene. She said that the trip helped her to understand her brother, my father, and his dark depressions, his charming, poetic highs and alarming binge drinking when she saw him duplicated in pubs all over Ireland. She greatly enjoyed travel adventures during her sixties, then settled into a pattern of staycations as arthritis limited her ability to travel.  She rejoiced in both.

Travel to see family or old friends or to go off on a charitable venture, like building homes for Habitat for Humanity can also be a joy.

But staying home and hosting family and friends, doing volunteer work and enjoying local sightseeing is gaining in appeal to friends and neighbors who have gone away, only to discover that their best moments have been right here.

"I can't tell you how much we missed warm weather and swimming!" Larry told us today.

"And reasonable people, neighbors we can be ourselves with and laugh with!" Louise added.

We haven't rushed to cancel our Maui reservations.  Exchanging the blast of desert winds for the gentle trade winds, the sound of distant monsoon thunder for the soothing sound of the surf, the joy of life right here for the joy of two weeks in a place with such happy memories still seems a fair tradeoff.  Even though we'll miss our comfortable home, our three wonderful cats, our terrific neighbors.  Even though we may begin to long for home before our trip to the tropics is over.

Oh, Auntie Em! There's no place like home!  These days, those words resonate more than ever.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Self-Sabotage as a Spectator Sport

Recently two friends mentioned their deep concern about their husbands: both men are dangerously obese. One has diabetes and cardiac problems. One has diabetes and high blood pressure with numerous complications.  Both women love their husbands dearly and want to enjoy many more years in their company -- but they're afraid that a potentially lethal combination of denial, defiance and emotional over-eating will deny them that pleasure.

As a spectator sport, self-sabotage is the pits.

It's incredibly painful to watch someone you love imperil their health by ignoring an obvious medical risk or by engaging in behavior that worsens the odds against poor health or early demise. And I've spent more time than I'd like to admit on the other side of that equation: causing my husband, my family, my dear friends and several concerned physicians to worry about my medical future.

So I can empathize with both sides in this dilemma: the concerned and loving spouse (I would be similarly distraught if Bob were at risk) and the self-sabotaging spouse with a looming -- or present -- medical problem as a result, at least in part, of poor health habits.

From both perspectives, I know this: nagging doesn't work.  It creates resentment, reinforces unhealthy behavior and frustrates everyone concerned.

My own experiences in this cycle of unhealthy living started just as I was arriving at midlife.  Never naturally slim, but active as a dancer and, later on, a runner in young adulthood, I maintained a healthy weight range of 118-125.  In our early years of marriage, Bob and I used to get up before dawn for a five mile run through the hills of Los Angeles, ringing in the New Year for a number of years with a run with friends in Griffith Park.  We chose to buy a home in Valencia in part because the community had running paths -- paseos-- where you could walk or run for miles without having to cross a street.

But at some point, as I was closing in on my forties,  a combination of work pressures, depression and a rogue medication with a side effect of weight gain caused me to start to overeat and to gain weight at an alarming rate. It snowballed into a nightmare. I gained 100 pounds in a year-and-a-half.  And kept gaining.  It was detrimental to my career -- I began to look terrible on t.v. shows. It didn't do wonders for my mood or my marriage, as Bob registered alarm, anger and desperate worry over my ever-expanding girth. It quickly took a toll on my body: for the first time in my life, I had high blood pressure. My knees and feet ached with the strain of the extra weight.  Family and friends greeted my changing appearance with painful silence, gentle teasing and frank concern.

I'll never forget a lunch I had, about ten years and 130 pounds into my weight gain, with my dear friend (and Teenage Body Book co-author) Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman.  "You know," he said, watching me dig into a plate of pasta. "I love you very much. I've told you already many times how concerned I am for you medically, especially given your family history of diabetes and heart disease. You can't continue to carry this much weight. But I feel like you're not hearing my concern. What would help? Would it help if I told you just how bad you look at this weight? You look like shit."  I fled the table in tears, knowing that what he said was true, knowing that he was speaking out of love and concern, knowing what it cost him emotionally to say what he said to me, but unwilling to deal with a problem that was becoming increasingly obvious and detrimental to my health.

My turn-around point came some time later due to a series of events: some cardiac concerns that broke through my denial, the enduring patience and love of my husband as I tried and failed and tried again to lose weight and the memorable words of one of my patients.

This patient was a very special one: her name is Jennifer and she was the first person I ever saw in therapy. We met on the first day of my first internship. I was at my highest weight -- 252 pounds -- and had asked that I not be given any patients with eating disorders, at least initially. But this young woman, who had a history of bulimia, had already worked unsuccessfully with all other available interns. I was the only one left. And her presenting problem this time was not bulimia but difficulty adjusting to college and with some primary relationships.  But still I worried. She looked at me appraisingly, then shrugged, that first day.  When, prodded by my supervisor before our third session, I finally asked Jennifer how having an overweight therapist felt for her, she shrugged again. "You're not that overweight," she said softly. "I like working with you."

Our work together spanned more than six years. She transferred with me when I went to another internship and stayed with me after I was licensed and in my own practice.  It was only after she had graduated from college and married that she felt ready to leave therapy and move, with her husband, to a city more than 500 miles away.

During our last session together, Jennifer looked at me and said quietly "You know, I've never said anything about your weight because I didn't want to be rude or hurt your feelings. But let me tell you what I wish: I wish you would take care of yourself as well as you've taken care of me.  I wish you could find a way to lose that extra weight and get healthy.  Because I love you so much and I want you to live a long, happy and healthy life."

And somewhere amidst all the pain and frustration that had surrounded my weight gain, her words resonated. Maybe I had reached a point in life where I was ready to hear the message of necessary self-care. Maybe the messenger -- a wonderful but sometimes challenging patient with whom I had struggled so over the years and from whom I had learned so much as a clinician -- was simply the right one at the right time. But from that point on, I slowly began to shed the pounds and regain my health.

It has been a long journey and it's not nearly finished.  Bob and I work out at the gym together every day. I swam laps for over an hour today. I've worked hard to change my eating habits and I've had a dramatic weight loss. But I still have a way to go before I reach a truly healthy weight.  Bob, long a frustrated and frantically worried spectator to my self-sabotage, is cheering me on. And that means so much.

So what can make a difference if you have a spouse -- or other loved one -- who is struggling with unhealthy eating habits, a sedentary existence or denial of a serious medical condition like diabetes?

Become an active participant in promoting a healthy lifestyle.  Don't just tell your sedentary spouse to get off the couch and get active.  Involve him or her in your own healthy lifestyle. And if you don't have a healthy lifestyle, start building one -- for both of you. You might start small, suggesting an after dinner walk together.  Your daily walk can be a chance to be alone together, to talk, to enjoy each other's company as you begin your fitness journey together. Even if your out-of-shape spouse can't join you in a run or in a spinning class you enjoy, find a way to be active together.  Present the walk -- or going to the gym together -- as a positive in your own life: "I really enjoy doing things with you, especially when we're able to be active together."

And be willing to sacrifice some treats of your own in the interests of healthier eating.  There is no reason -- not for you, not for the kids -- to have cookies, sugary sodas or other sweets in the house.  Replacing these with fresh fruit and vegetable snacks can help the entire family enjoy better health. If you're in the habit of grabbing fast food or eating out on busy evenings, try to prepare healthy meals to freeze on weekends for quick at home dinners during the week. You'll save money, time and calories. Think of it from the health-challenged person's perspective: if there are chocolates in the fridge, cookies in the cupboard and fast food on the menu most nights, it's very hard to get a start on healthy eating and living.

Research and follow through with a plan for healthy family meals.  "I don't know what to do about my husband because he likes and demands his full meals!" one friend told me recently.  Her husband, who has diabetes, could have a full, satisfying and healthy meal -- from soup to dessert -- if both did some research into how to choose and cook the right foods.  It's a matter of finding a satisfying balance between old food preferences and healthy choices. Initially, this can require learning to make healthy choices and, perhaps, new cooking techniques.  But it's well worth the effort -- for the whole family.

Give healthy changes a realistic time frame.  Some current weight loss reality shows feature contestants with the stated goal of losing 100 pounds in three months.  Most medical experts would agree that such a rapid weight loss can, in itself, be a health risk and requires such severe calorie restriction that it would not be sustainable over time.  Most medical experts agree that slow and steady loss is best.  While some medical or hospital based programs for the morbidly obese -- such as UCLA Medical Center's Risk Factor Obesity program where I received treatment several years ago -- may feature a rapid weight loss initial component for patients at extreme risk as I was, the emphasis is on a slower loss over time as one learns new healthy eating habits meant to last a lifetime.  You can't change the habits of many years instantly.  But you have to start somewhere -- and today is a good day for a new start. You can't lose a huge amount of weight on a supervised fast and expect it to stay off unless you learn a new way of eating, dealing with feelings and becoming more active in the meantime.  Stopping self-sabotage and adopting self-care is a process that takes time. 

Encourage your loved one to get medical help.  Everyone, especially someone who is middle-aged or beyond with a sedentary lifestyle and medical risks, should see a doctor for a check-up and recommendations before starting serious exercise or a weight loss program. After that point, whether your loved one chooses to see the family physician or go to a therapist or to start a weight loss program like Weight Watchers and/or to get serious about exercise, you can help with your encouragement, and by helping them to find resources. Then step back a bit, ever encouraging and supportive. In order to be successful in stopping self-sabotaging behavior, the person at risk needs to take responsibility for his or her own behavior and healing. 

There are some instances, however, when a concerned spouse has to take a stronger stance. One friend in California, whose diabetic husband's eating habits and blood sugar had spiraled so out of control that she feared for his life on a daily basis, called his doctor, accompanied her husband into the examining room and told the doctor what was going on.  Her husband was shaken and angry at first.  But, as he worked with his doctor and his wife to get back in control of his health and his life, he felt relieved and grateful.  "She pulled me back from the brink," he says now. "How do you begin to thank a person for that?"

Express your concern with love.  It's true that obesity can lead to some life-limiting, even life-threatening consequences. The point is that, most of all, you're not looking to criticize your spouse -- but to let him or her know that you want the maximum time together. You want to expand the number of healthy, active years you can enjoy as a couple.  That can mean a lot at this stage of life as we watch friends and family members pass away or become incapacitated. As the toll mounts around us, it becomes harder to deny the frailty of life or the consequences of not taking care of ourselves.  So "I want us to both be well as long as possible" or "I want us to be able to be active together for years to come!" may touch your spouse's heart in a way that nagging never could.

Reflecting on my own struggles, I think with love and gratitude of those who cared -- thanks to Dr. Charles Clegg and Dr. Larry Mayer and his nurse and wife Graciela Mayer and to the Risk Factor Obesity program at UCLA. Thanks to Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman and to my dear husband Bob for his daily patience, encouragement and love.  And thank you, Jennifer, for speaking from your heart at just the right time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Loving What Is

Her name is Stephanie and she's fixture at the community center here.  Every day her husband drags her in to distract her with fun activities -- from crafts to gym workouts to ping pong to swimming -- anything to get her mind off her misery.

But in between activities, she sags into the sofa in the cyber cafe and complains:

"I hate retirement! It's so boring!"

"I hate it here. Look out there: it's flat and dry and ugly and awful."

"It's so hot, I could die. I really could. This is disgusting."

This, of course, is her depression speaking. When someone is seriously depressed, it can take on a life of its own, perpetuating a way of thinking that maintains the dark mood.

One of the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy interrupts the depressive cycle by consciously stopping negative thinking and then substituting positive thoughts, stopping the downward spiral.

Most of us don't struggle with the same overwhelming depression that Stephanie faces on a daily basis. But we can still turn boredom to excitement, a down mood to joy, monochrome to Technicolor just by reframing some of our thoughts and observations, giving them a positive twist.

Bob and I tried that just for fun during a 40 minute drive to the nearest movie theater and book store the other day.

The temperatures were hovering in the 110's and the humidity, thanks to an active monsoon season, was oppressive.  "It's life-giving warmth!" Bob cried, opening the car windows and letting the hot air blast our faces.  Normally, I would have recoiled. But the sense that this was life-giving warmth (instead of energy-sapping heat) made it not only bearable but also almost pleasurable.

We also surveyed the passing landscape: stark desert dotted with saguaro, sage and other Southwestern flora and fauna alternating with cotton fields, row after row of towering corn, dramatic mountains looming in the distance, a bright blue sky with billowing storm clouds building vertically all around the valley. Instead of thinking that we're seriously in the sticks here, that there is a beige theme to the landscape with only occasional interruptions of green and gold agricultural fields, with yet another monsoon storm on the horizon, we marveled at the vast open skies, the dramatic contrasts, the lack of traffic (for people who spent years commuting in Los Angeles traffic on the dreaded 405 of recent Carmeggedon fame, lack of traffic is a huge plus!).  We were smiling at our great adventure when we finally arrived at our destination.

There are many different realties, after all. A place can be starkly ugly or starkly beautiful, depending on your point of view.  Retirement can be a terrible bore or an unprecedented opportunity to do things you've always wanted. It can be the loss of all that was familiar or the blessing of freedom from past obligations. It's all in how you look at it.

We were in the community pool today when the talk came around to a few former neighbors who moved because they didn't like their immediate neighbors. Short of living next to a mass murderer, what could possibly possess people to sell their homes at a loss and move on in hopes of  -- what? Finding the perfect neighbors by random luck?

It makes more sense to reframe some negative impressions. Do you have a neighbor who isn't especially friendly? Reframe it as someone who likes his or her privacy and doesn't wish you any harm.
Is a neighbor overly fussy about noise? Reframing the person as especially sensitive to noise can help soothe the irritation. Is a neighbor loud? Think exuberant instead. This can help your own mood and can also lead to more cordial relationships with your neighbors. Looking for the positive qualities of others instead of focusing on their faults can change how you feel about your immediate environment.

And if misunderstandings or hurt feelings happen, take positive action rather than let them simmer.  A new neighbor Hank resolved a brewing misunderstanding with another one of his neighbors by showing up at their door and telling them how much he wanted to get along and enjoy living next to them. His positive attitude and courage in expressing his feelings has made a major difference. Peace reigns anew.

Reframing doesn't demand a major life change. It can mean little shifts in your thought patterns, exploring a different way of looking at everyday life.

It's a matter of loving what is -- not longing for what used to be or dreaming of finding your own personal Shangri-La complete with perfect weather, perfect neighbors and a perfect house where nothing ever goes wrong.  Loving life as it is and as it happens can make you feel blessed with the joys and the imperfections alike.

Bob and I feel uniquely blessed -- with truly the best neighbors we could possibly have (that didn't take any reframing), a life that feels wonderfully free and full of possibilities, in sun-kissed (reframed from sun-baked) wide open spaces, with plenty of -- uh --  life-giving warmth.

Life is good, indeed!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Happy Ending to Dental Hell

At a recent 4th of July picnic, someone offered me an ear of corn. I hesitated, then remembered that I could now enjoy this treat I had not eaten in years.

I have spent a lifetime in a succession of dental chairs, getting multiple fillings, crowns, root canals and extractions.  Despite the fact that I brush and floss faithfully several times a day, despite the fact that my gums are healthy, I inherited a dental condition from my father that involves unusually thin enamel on my teeth, making them more vulnerable than most to decay.  My sister Tai inherited the same condition and has been even more unfortunate than I: she had full dentures before she was 50.

My tooth loss started to accelerate around 2007, leaving embarrassing gaps.  During one of my last extractions, the oral surgeon suggested that I get two implants to replace the teeth that I was losing, explaining that it was much easier to put an implant in during an extraction.  "How much would it cost?" I asked.  He looked annoyed. "Oh, it would be about $10,000 for the two implants," he said casually, as if that amount were minimal. I shook my head. "I can't afford that," I said as he scowled back at me. "Just pull the teeth."

I knew insurance didn't cover implants. I knew I had to have them.  I started saving money, dreaming of the day I could replace those missing teeth.

In the meantime, there were some embarrassing moments.

I learned to tame my wide smile to a minimal grin.  I stopped throwing back my head to laugh.

But there were times when the tooth loss was painfully evident.

In late 2007, I had a series of screen tests for the MTV show "Sex and Your Parents" featuring a psychotherapist helping teens and their parents talk about sex. It had been a hit in England and the American version had been under development for some time. I was under consideration for the role of the psychotherapist.

In the early screen tests, I smiled just enough to look friendly, not enough to reveal my dental problems.  Encouraged by the success of each screen test, I ordered a set of "flippers" to mask the gaps in my mouth without affecting my speech.  But, as the date of the pilot filming in New York loomed, my final screen test in L.A. -- a half hour show segment featuring me working with a teenager and her family -- was set to film before my flippers were ready.  As the filming began, the director stopped the action to reposition me. "From this angle, you look like you have no teeth on one side," he said. "We want you to look great in this!" My cheeks burned with embarrassment as the director repositioned me and the camera several times before my dental defects weren't immediately noticeable.

Just days before the pilot was to shoot, I was notified that, while I was a close second choice, the doctor who was chosen to do the show was veteran media doc Dr. Drew Pinksy.

So I went back to my regular life, secretly a bit relieved, and kept saving my money for implants.  I also started researching dental services offering implants and found that there was quite a variation in prices.  To my surprise, the lowest price and most experienced surgeons I found were in Beverly Hills. It was a clinic called Secure Smiles in the heart of Beverly Hills and they charged less than half of what the oral surgeon who had done my extractions cost.  I contacted them and went through an evaluation process.  They proposed to do eight implants and an extraction during my surgery, implanting the posts and then, six to seven months later, depending on the speed of my healing,  placing the crowns covering the posts.

I dreaded the surgery terribly, planning to take a week off work. However, it all went so smoothly that I was up and around, on my computer answering emails within hours after my Saturday morning surgery. To my boss' surprise, I was back at work on Monday. Healing went wonderfully and I have had my implanted teeth for nearly two years. My sister has a full set of dentures, anchored by implants, and is also delighted.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Some of my companions at the 4th of July picnic were curious about my joy in eating corn on the cob for the first time in years -- and also wanted to know about what it was like to get dental implants.  I thought some readers, too, might be curious or be thinking of taking the step.

Also, I mention it because the cost has become less prohibitive. I recently received notification that some dental plans - such as Delta Dental, the plan I have - are now covering 50% of the cost of an implant. Along with falling prices, this might make dental implants affordable for many more people.

When you have implants, dental hygiene is even more important. I use a rotary toothbrush and floss religiously. I also have four dental cleanings a year.

But I couldn't be more pleased with the result.  It really isn't a matter of now being able to bite into an apple or eating corn on the cob. That's a real treat, after all these years. But my greatest joy is feeling free to smile broadly and throw my head back in laughter. It's wonderful to have my smile back!

The following video, which is featured on the Secure Smiles website, under the humbling title of "Got Time? Listen to Kathleen's testimonial.." is one filmed last year just before I left L.A. to move to Arizona. Punctuated by the clinic's logos at certain intervals, this six minute video details my experiences of the process of getting and enjoying dental implants. Obviously, unless you live in or around L.A. and need implants, the clinic might not be of interest, but I'm sharing my excellent experience of implant surgery in general with anyone who may be thinking or wondering about this terrific dental procedure.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fighting Cynicism

The display was just inside the entrance of our local Safeway supermarket this morning: a circle of paper shopping bags filled with grocery staples and a sign inviting us to pick one up, pay $10 for it at the check stand and it would be donated to a local needy family.

I was immediately skeptical. We donate regularly to our local food bank. This corporate sponsored charity triggered suspicion: was the merchandise really worth $10? Were we supposed to pay $10 for it and the store -- or the corporation behind the store -- would take a gigantic charitable tax deduction? Would these even go out to needy families -- or would they be recirculated back to that circle for another sucker to come in and drop $10? I walked past the display thinking "What's the scam here anyway?"

I'll have to admit I've been feeling angry, disgusted and dismayed lately about corporate greed and cynicism, about the Koch brothers' pollution of the political scene, about deficit solutions that propose taking from the middle class, poor and elderly while the fat cats will still get the tax deductions for their corporate jets and non-taxpaying, job-outsourcing corporations continue to suck in obscene profits and tax credits.

Lately, I've been going to the grocery store in a dark mood.  I go with a list of products produced by the  Koch industries and studiously boycott every product on the list. Voting with my checkbook feels somewhat meaningful even if my vote at the polls pales in comparison to corporate influence. This morning, I glanced at my Koch list irritably and then looked behind me.

Bob had picked up one of the paper bags and was putting it in the basket. I scowled. We weren't going to be suckers for some corporate scam!

"The point is that this sack of food will go to some needy family," Bob said. "We've been so blessed in life. How can we not give back? Even though you think it's just another corporate scam, what if this bag of groceries would make a real difference for someone struggling to feed his or her family?"

I thought about it -- and realized that he was right. And I reflected sadly about how my cynicism was beginning to block my altruism.  And I thought about about how our hope as citizens and as a nation lies in not losing our humanity and our compassion for each other.

The divisions, the inequities, and the rage at those who are different in any way from us are some of the most frightening aspects of life in the U.S. today. Right wing pundits take aim at unionized teachers, firefighters and police. The younger generations grumble about the greedy geezers who are supposedly living high on the hog with their Social Security riches and Medicare benefits. The less affluent are looking more critically at the lifestyles of the very rich.  The financial gap between the rich and the rest of us is widening. Both political parties seem more interested in playing partisan games than in the economic well-being and future of the nation.

But, at least until the next election, that is out of our hands. Or maybe it is forever out of our hands. The question is now what can we as individuals do to counteract the epidemic of selfishness, greed and lack of empathy sweeping the land?

Maybe we can step back from our own cynicism, our own partisan opinions, and find ways to care for each other again. Maybe we can stop focusing on what divides us from others and concentrate, instead, on what we share.  Maybe, setting aside fears of economic meltdowns, terrorism and political insanity, we can live with gratitude for today and for what we do have and reach out to help those less fortunate.

It's all a matter of taking that first step away from anger, suspicion and dire expectations -- and opting for empathy and good will. The only time we really have is the present. The only people we can really change? Ourselves. How we view those around us is our own decision. In these tumultuous times, we can make the choice to trust, to give, to love.

I took a deep breath. Then,  agreeing with Bob that we, indeed, have been blessed, I made extra space in our shopping cart for that paper bag.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Remembering Aunt Molly on Her Birthday

She was my hero: an independent woman, a professional writer, a happily single person who lived her life exactly as she pleased.  She had a wonderful sense of humor, a deeply caring sense of family -- my father was her beloved brother, my mother her best friend and we -- Mike, Tai, and myself -- were her partners in adventure -- whether it was a day at the beach, a weekend in her apartment eating Swiss cheese and semi-frozen boysenberry pie for dinner, a trip to Yosemite or an afternoon listening to her spin fun poetry as we lay on the grass watching the clouds.  We always called her our third and best parent.

If she were alive today, this would be the 94th birthday of Elizabeth Catherine McCoy -- Molly to her family -- who was born on July 12, 1917 in Tucson, Arizona.  She was a bright and lively child, whose memories of life in Tucson were limited to the smell of the desert after a rain and the comfort of her Daddy's lap as he sang softly to her.

                                              Molly as a baby in Tucson, Az about 1918              

After her father died, when Molly was only four, the family moved to Los Angeles so that her older brother Jim could support the family by acting in movies and singing and dancing in vaudeville. Molly did a little film work as an extra now and then, but she mostly concentrated on her studies, skipping three grades in school and graduating from high school when she was 15.  She was already a published writer by then, winning national short story and poetry contests.  After their mother died, Molly and Jim worked odd jobs to pay their way through UCLA where Molly got both a B.A. and a Master's degree in English literature.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Jim became an Army Air Force pilot, assigned to the ranks of test pilots at Wright Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio.  My mother joined him as an emergency services nurse. Molly moved east to be with them -- and got a position as a civilian speech writer for Air Force generals, a job she kept for more than 30 years, transferring back to several different Air Force bases in California when I was in high school.

And, in the meantime, she began a successful sideline of writing television plays for shows like "Climax", "U.S. Steel Hour" and "Alcoa Presents."  She wrote mystery short stories for magazines and poetry for literary journals.  One of my favorites was one she wrote about the bomb shelter craze during the nuclear scares of the late Fifties and early Sixties (below):


Even when she lived in Ohio, Aunt Molly was a constant presence in our lives -- with regular phone calls, witty letters and much anticipated visits at Christmas and for a month during the summer. We treasured every day we had with her.  She did things with us that our parents never had the time or energy to do: we would go to the beach for a glorious day of swimming and sunning. Holding hands, we  would dash into the waves with her, running until someone fell down and pulled all the others down, too. We would sit on the sand and she would make up fun poetry, which I memorized on the spot. We would go to plays and musicals.  She wrote phony press releases about my idol Cyril Ritchard and made up fun poetry about him.  After seeing him at the Metropolitan Opera in "La Perichole", where he made his entrance on a donkey and was the only performer on the program listed without a vocal range beside his name, she wrote a poem that was based on Lewis Carroll's "You Are Old, Father Willam!" and sent it to me.

                       Lines Largely Inspired by Cyril Ritchard in "La Perichole"

"You are sauve, Cyril Ritchard!" the spectator cried
"You sparkle like finely cut glass.
Do you think, in such case, it is seemly or wise
To Enter Act One on an ass?"

"In my youth," said the actor "I played a long run
On a moth-eaten llama who'd spit
When I flatted a note or butchered a line
Right into the orchestra pit."

"This irascible beast, though I found him a trial
Taught me poise not to say savior faire
So now I can ride on whatever I please
Without turning a vice regal hair."

"You're so charming!" the spectator breathed with a sigh
"So why do you incessantly play
Rogues, scoundrels and cads of such villainous ilk
One should shudder at what you portray?"

"In my youth," said the Thespian, chortling with glee
"I studied the harp and played heroes
But I found that the audience always applauded
The fiendishly fiddling Neroes.

"In the course of the years, with great cunning and skill
I mastered the difficult art
Of the consummate knave
With superb joi de vivre
Who can steal both the purse and the heart!"

"You sing like a bird," mused the spectator. "Yes...
Your notes are both firm and full-blown.
But pray tell me your range -- are you tenor or bass
Or a shading of baritone?"

"In my youth," blared the Player, sustaining a note
Til the plaster dropped off of the ceiling.
"I knew an old diva as deaf as a post
Addicted to drinking Darjeeling.

"She taught me to sing by striking the pitch
On the top of my head with her cane.
And after two lessons, I sang like a lark
And reeled like a one-legged crane.

"She inculcated rhythm by beating the tune
In my face with an old ivory fan.
You may question my range
But in volume and verve,
Cyril Ritchard need yield to no man."

"You dance like Nijinsky!" the Spectator gushed,
"Combining both grace and abandon
So one is never sure what part of the stage -- or the stalls --
You are likely to land on!"

"In my youth," gasped the actor, performing jettes
Like a grasshopper far flown in wine.
"I learned my first steps at the Brisbane Ballet
From a kangaroo named Clementine.

"She was gifted and droll and, perhaps, on the whole
As patient as any a tutor.
But her temper was worse than an old Irish curse
When one's pas de deux did not suit her.

"One flip of her tail, would send me full sail
Well into General Admission.
So I learned to be quick as a fox with a chick
And as agile as nuclear fission."

"You're fantastic!" The Spectator grasped his lapels
"Yet you seldom come out to the West!
How can you inflict such a dearth of Ritchard
On an area otherwise blessed?"

"I have answered four questions and that is enough!"
Stormed the Actor, magenta with rage.
"Unhand my lapel and undarken my door...
Be off or I'll kick you down stage!"

Continuing to honor my tween-crush on Mr. Ritchard, she gave me two boxed sets of his readings of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" when I was 12.  And she told me that she thought I had chosen my idol well.

Many years later, in 1981, I wrote down, from memory, the poem above and gave it to her with several others as a Christmas surprise.  The photo below shows her rediscovering her own fun poetry.

                                    Rediscovering her fun poetry - Christmas 1981                

But life with Aunt Molly wasn't always fun and laughter. Sometimes she taught us hard and necessary lessons.

One day, when I was five or six, on an expedition to Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena -- to this day one of my favorite places in the world -- we were driving through a predominently African-American  neighborhood when I pointed out a man walking along the sidewalk.

"Hey, Aunt Molly, look!" I cried, pointing.  "There's a nigger!"

In an instant, she pulled the car over to the curb, shut off the ignition and turned to look at me, her face burning with rage.  Her voice was quiet and intense. "Don't you ever use that word again, do you hear me? That is a terrible word. It is full of hate and ignorance. Don't ever say it. Don't even think it! People of all colors deserve the same respect. Don't let me ever hear you say that again!"

I shrank back against the window, my throat aching, blinking back tears. "But Father says it all the time! That's all he ever calls black people," I whimpered.

"Your father is wrong," she said, her eyes never leaving mine. "You know I love your father very, very much. But he's wrong about this. And it's just as wrong when you say it. So promise me..."

"I promise."

"I love you, my little LYC..." she said, wiping my tears as she stroked my face tenderly. "I want you to grow up to be a good person."

When I was small, I would ask her how much she loved me and she would reply "I love you this much, up to the sky and beyond!"

She had pet names for all of us. I was LYC (or Little Yellow Chicken), a nickname bestowed when I was toddler with light hair, a piping voice and a touch of shyness. Mike was "Kool Kat" or "Man" because he was fascinated by beatniks and, in the midst of our chaotic family environment, aspired to extreme coolness.  And Tai was "TF" or "Tiny Fungus" because she tended to cling to Aunt Molly relentlessly whenever she was around.  Our nicknames persisted into our middle age.

And she had her own way of dealing with our teenage surliness and angst.  My brief form of teen rebellion, when I was 13, was to become aggressively religious. I went to Mass every day. I wore a jangling clot of religious medals and scapulars around my neck. I prayed with my arms in the form of a cross in the backyard at sunset. And I had an annoying habit of quoting the Bible constantly. My parents were irritated, but decided this was better than sex, drugs or rock n roll.  Not Aunt Molly.

 One Saturday, during our weekly shopping excursion to Pasadena, Aunt Molly was trying on shoes at Robinson's.  "What do you think of these?" she asked, extending her foot in my direction.

I heaved a put-upon adolescent sigh and said "Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, save loving God and serving Him alone."

There was a beat as she looked at me for a silent moment and then said "Am I going to have to take you home because you're being such an incredible pain in the ass? Or are we going to have a nice lunch after this?"

"We're going to have a nice lunch!" I said quickly, with a smile.  And I never quoted the Bible to her again.

                                            Aunt Molly - pictured in the late Fifties                      

But it was Aunt Molly, soon after that, who agreed not only to drive me in to Hollywood to see the movie "The Nun's Story" but also to sit through it without complaint. It was Aunt Molly who encouraged me to dress with style. It was Aunt Molly who taught me to drive in her exceedingly cool, brand new 1962 Impala. It was Aunt Molly who taught me my most important lesson about writing.

"Do you think this is good?" I asked her one day when I was 11 or 12, extending a school essay in her direction.  

She handed it back to me. "What do you think?" she asked. "Do you think it's good?"

I gaped at her, open-mouthed and mumbled "I don't know..."

"You need to know," she said. "Don't ever depend on anyone else to tell you whether something you write is good. You have to know it yourself, in here." She touched her heart and then her head.

Still, after my first quarter at Northwestern, under the incomparable eye of Elizabeth Swayne, my first and best writing teacher there, Aunt Molly looked stunned as she read my final paper for the class. "My God," she said quietly. "This is good....really good! What did she DO in this class? I can't believe how she cleaned up your's wonderful!" And she embraced me.

One of Aunt Molly's greatest lessons to me -- to all of us -- was embracing life. She delighted in every aspect of her life -- from the garden she planted in her first and only house to family gatherings to her friends.  She loved a good party and was no stranger to romance. "But the men of my generation don't appeal to me," she confided one day. "They want to be waited on. They want a woman to serve them. No thanks! My life is my own -- and I love it!"

                      Family gatherings revolved around our beloved Aunt Molly                             

She so loved life that, even in her eighties, she couldn't imagine dying.  "I haven't decided when I would want to die," she told me one day as we dove into fresh strawberry pie at her favorite local restaurant. "I love the spring and flowers and I couldn't go and leave my garden untended.  And summer is just about my favorite time -- with supper on the patio and a day at the beach. I couldn't miss summer. And fall is so great, with the leaves so colorful and Halloween and Thanksgiving and the promise of Christmas. Oh, I couldn't miss Christmas! That's my favorite time of year. I would have to stick around for Christmas!"

                                    Molly, Mike, Bob and me shortly before Molly's death          

And so she did.  We had a wonderful family Christmas celebration in 2003. Mike picked her up at her home and they stopped for a tour of Vroman's on their way to my house.  We sang carols and laughed and exchanged funny gifts and enjoyed a non-traditional Christmas dinner of spaghetti because she had asked for it. 

Then Bob and I drove her the 100 miles home to Redlands. As we visited briefly at her place, she looked at me suddenly and said quietly "If I get really sick, will you please arrange in home care so I can stay at home? I love my home and I never want to leave it."  I put my arms around her, suddenly noticing that she felt fragile, that I was taller than she.  

"I promise," I said, kissing her and quietly wishing I could hold her in my arms forever.

It was an easy promise to keep.  On January 5, 2004, she dressed carefully for a belated holiday lunch with her good friend Magda, who lived around the corner.  While waiting for Magda to pick her up, she sat down in her favorite chair to do that day's New York Times crossword puzzle.  When Magda arrived and got no answer to her knock on the door, she let herself in with Molly's hidden key.  At first, she thought Molly had fallen asleep.  Then she touched her hand and felt the coolness of death.

Later, going through Aunt Molly's belongings, I found notations in her desk diary that she had had episodes of angina in the middle of the night throughout the month of December 2003. Her heart was failing and she knew it, but never said a word to us.  She willed herself to be with us for one more holiday season and then, when the season was nearly over,  she slipped away.  We noticed that she had nearly finished that New York Times crossword puzzle before she died -- and she was getting everything right. It was the perfect way for her to leave this life.

We buried her ashes in a grave beside her mother's, the day before Mother's Day in 2004.  With tears and laughter, we read some of her poetry and talked about how much we loved her.

That love is still the topic of conversation whenever Mike or Tai or Bob and I talk of Aunt Molly.  And sometimes it just hits me -- with the hint of a warm summer breeze or the smell of the desert after a rain or sitting on a beach and remembering our runs into the waves. Suddenly, just for a moment, I'm a wistful child again. And I say quietly "I love you, too, Aunt Molly...up to the sky and beyond!"


Monday, July 11, 2011

The Worlds We Knew

Women born in and around the Baby Boom generation -- and that accounts for a lot of us -- grew up in one world, came of age in another and are growing older in yet another. It has been a exhilarating, frustrating, joyous and arduous process.

We grew up in a world of limited options and expectations for women.

Growing up in the Fifties, I saw very few women in our neighborhood working outside their homes, except for Yvonne, the woman across the street, the veteran of several divorces, who worked at the local Fosters Freeze. All of the women had worked through the Depression and the war years -- my mother as a nurse, an American Airlines flight attendant and, finally, as an emergency services nurse who rode the ambulance out to the runways of the testing facilities at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to pick up casualties of plane crashes. Liz had been a night club pianist. Eleanor was a private secretary to a aircraft company executive. Now they were all wives and stay-at-home moms and life wasn't always as portrayed in "Leave It to Beaver."

Sure, they loved their husbands. They loved their kids. They kept life humming along for their families in their cozy suburban homes. But, for some, there was something amiss.  I overhead their complaints when my mother and the neighbor women got together for coffee at our house many mornings. They were bored and felt unappreciated and stuck. Some of them drank too much. Some of them smoked one cigarette after another. Some, like my mother, ate out of frustration. I listened and promised myself that this would not be my life.

It seemed that as invisible as they felt at times, stay-at-home wives and mothers were blamed for everything -- from Vance Packard's best-selling indictment of "Mom-ism" and his dire observation that the nation's mothers were raising "a generation of vipers" to the dreaded "ring-around-the-collar" of detergent commercial fame.  In the commercials, the man was never embarrassed when others noticed his filthy collar. It was the wife who cringed, because, of course, it was her fault that his collar was stained -- or even that he didn't keep his neck clean. It seemed that our mothers just couldn't win.

Even in school, the nuns would tell us our options were to grow up to be good Catholic wives and mothers or, even better, to be a nun.  I started sending for convent literature when I was 12.

About that time, dreaming of independence, I used to play a fantasy game: picking up the newspaper want ads and, pretending that I was twentysomething, would spend an hour, just for fun, pretending to look for a job, an apartment and a car, circling the ads that looked most promising.  But what was frustrating was that all of the most interesting jobs came under the heading "Help Wanted: Men".  Just about all I could find under "Help Wanted: Women" were jobs that were for "Gal Friday!" and "Super Secretary!" and "Easy, Fun Job!" None of those fired my imagination, but I'd pick the best of the worst and go on to find my apartment and car.

Life started changing in college and graduate school. I went to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism -- and women were taken seriously, to a point.  We were encouraged to major in Magazine -- the worst paying, most female dominated branch of journalism at that time. Women were actively discouraged from a Broadcast Journalism major because, the dean told us, "We don't want to train you for a field where you won't be able to get a job. Women just aren't being hired for broadcast, especially for on-camera jobs."  It was true. My classmate and friend Marie Traina stubbornly insisted on a Broadcast major. After graduation, she was unable to find a broadcasting job -- on camera or off -- and ended up working as a newspaper reporter, winning an award her first year at the paper. The beginning of new opportunities for women as television reporters and anchors came about five years after my class graduated.

But at least there was a nod toward competent women in our class: the few female instructors in the program inspired us. And when an honors seminar was established at the end of freshman year, it was equally divided between men and women. And the women very much held their own in discussions and achievements in school and in life beyond.

When we, the leading edge of the Baby Boomers, graduated from college in the late Sixties, opportunities were opening at a rate that would have astonished our mothers back in the day. But there were still constraints starting out.

In my case, magazine jobs paid so horribly that the expectation was, at least in New York, that indulgent parents would help support their daughters until they married.  In Los Angeles, where I started my magazine career, there was only one consumer magazine publishing group that had editiorial offices in L.A.  The company published a full list of major magazines targeted at men -- Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Photographic, Guns and Ammo -- and one magazine aimed at a female audience - 'TEEN.  It was no secret that the female editors of 'TEEN made less money than the secretaries of the editors of the other magazines. Company honchos told the EEOC that 'TEEN was a separate enterprise, after all.  And, besides, if any of us didn't like working for low wages, we could just leave. The publisher could easily find eager young college grads who would work for those wages.

Because I was the first young editor hired with a Master's degree in journalism from a prestigious school, the publisher offered me a better deal: instead of making $350 a month, I would be starting at $400. Even in 1968 that was a ridiculously low wage. However,  I jumped at the opportunity -- and long term, it was an excellent decision. The experience and exposure I would gain in my nine years at 'TEEN would set the tone and provide the groundwork for the rest of my career.

But before I could start, I -- and all of the other female staffers -- had to endure a grilling from the corporation's Human Resources Director. He was tall, skinny, pallid and socially awkward. He read from a list of prepared questions on a tattered index card -- and one of the questions made my jaw drop: "What form of birth control are you using?"

I stared at him and stammered "Nothing! I mean, I'm a virgin! I don't even have a boyfriend."

He looked over his glasses at me. "You're 23 years old."

I nodded, feeling ashamed and already like a failure. "I know," I said. "Guys don't like me. This guy in college dumped me because I wanted a career and he wanted a wife. I don't know if I'll ever get married."  I could feel my cheeks burning.

"Well," he said. "When we hire girls for editorial positions, we want to make sure they're going to stay at least a year or two. We don't want anyone getting pregnant and leaving after six months."

I stared down at my hands, humiliated. "I won't," I whispered. "I promise I won't."

This unhappy rite of passage at the company persisted into the early Seventies. As time went on, female applicants increasingly confronted him about the question, complaining that it felt intrusive.  But it took a British journalist named Ellen to bring an end to it forever.  A well-known writer and television host in England, with a quick wit and short temper, Ellen stared at him when he asked her the question. Silence.

He asked once more: "What form of birth control do you use?"

She looked him in the eye and answered "Fellatio!"

He never asked the question again.

We came of age at a time when women had more options than ever before.

Times were changing, after all, in the Seventies as feminism captured the imagination of a significant segment of Baby Boomer women. Legislative changes opened more doors. Workplaces began to change. Want ads no longer labeled jobs male or female only.

We were evolving from the constraints we had known growing up to the heady advances of the Seventies and Eighties when we dared to dream, walked the halls in our power suits and learned to multi-task.  We were coming of age in an era where we believed we could have it all: a career, a marriage, children -- just like men.

Only we found out that we couldn't really, at least not all at the same time.

The limitations were evident to me in the personal histories of those ten men and women in the honors seminar at Northwestern: the five men all went on to have high profile careers, enduring marriages and multiple children.  Of the five women, one chose to forgo a career for marriage and children. The remaining four of us opted for high profile careers. Only one of the four was ever a mother -- and her only child was born when she was in her early forties and well established.

Overall, women's lives weren't always in such stark contrast to men's, but there were concessions to the demands of child-raising with years of career-building put on hold or concessions to work with a generation of latch-key kids or various combinations over time. There was the Mommy Track. There were media-fueled "Mommy Wars" and glass ceilings that began to seem unbreakable. We were the most educated and ambitious generation of women ever, coming of age in an era of growing opportunities for women and concurrent tough choices.  Having it all was an incredible challenge.

Perhaps not by accident, inflation and growing wage stagnation made it more difficult for families to enjoy a middle class lifestyle on one salary. Increasingly, women had to work.  For those of us with careers we loved, the situation wasn't as difficult -- except for women who faced the prospect of leaving young babies or small children in the care of another.  For women who would have preferred to stay home with their children, leaving them to go to work could be agonizing.  And, in the Eighties and Nineties, the stay-at-home-with-the-children Mom whom some of us had foolishly scorned as we grew up in the Fifties became an envied lifestyle -- either the option of a parent who was affluent enough not to have to work outside the home or one who, with a partner, had made major financial sacrifices to give the children full-time nurturing.  And we realized, over time, that there were no easy choices or answers in our quest to have it all.  There were times when some of us looked back with a certain nostalgia on the simple certainty of our mothers' lives.

We're growing older in an increasingly uncertain world.

We're growing older in a rapidly changing world of increased uncertainty -- uncertainty about the stability of our careers and earning futures, uncertainty about the possibility or stability of our retirement as controversy swirls about cuts to Social Security and Medicare.  Some Boomers are considering the possibility that they will need to work until they are 70 or beyond --or, perhaps, never retire. At the same time, unemployment is disastrously high and particularly problematic for those in their forties, fifties or early sixties who face particularly steep odds as they search for new jobs.

We're watching and worrying as younger generations face challenges many of us didn't have: the prohibitive cost of college, the crushing burden of student loans, fewer jobs, the prevalence of no-pay or low-pay internships, the daunting cost of getting launched into an independent life.

We're watching as both political parties appear to put the interests of corporations and Wall Street, of political ambitions and strategies above the good of the nation and citizens in the economic lower 98%.
And we wonder what's to become of our country and of us.

We're learning, in a time of diminishing prospects and expectations, to find pleasure where we can, to live in the moment and cherish each day.  In an age where simplification and frugality have become the new standard, we're learning to live with no-frills and are happier than we had ever imagined on less than we planned.

There are times, even now, when we look back with a hint of nostalgia at the simple certainty of our mothers' lives in the Fifties. And then we remember their frustration and paltry options.  There are times when we look back at our own certainty, ambition and optimism in those heady, busy coming of age years -- and then we remember the difficult, sometimes heart-rending choices that had to be made. And, increasingly, there are times when we are grateful for our lives today -- times when we cherish the opportunity to look back on our lives and decide what has mattered most, times when we appreciate anew the value of family, friendships and enduring love. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Remembering Cyril Ritchard

Some friends and I were talking the other day about beloved idols of our youth. Elvis, Ricky Nelson, The Beatles, and the enduring Frank Sinatra all came up.

My husband Bob remembers that he saw Ricky Nelson as the cool guy he longed to be and Annette, blooming into puberty on "The Mickey Mouse Club" for a generation of enchanted young boys, as the perfect symbol of sweet sensuality.

When all of this was going on, I wasn't among the admirers of Elvis or Ricky. Instead, from the time I was nine years old, I was totally enamored with Cyril Ritchard, the 50-something Australian actor who played Captain Hook in Mary Martin's "Peter Pan". He was the villain, but I knew he was kidding. I knew in my heart that he was a good man pretending to be bad. He was about the same height and build as my father -- but, despite his campy villainy, he projected a winning combination of warmth, silliness, outrageous humor and dignity. I felt safe when I thought of him. And, in a home where, at times, I was very frightened of my raging, alcoholic father, I thought of him a lot.

I used to fantasize that he would somehow meet and marry my beloved Aunt Molly -- both were single, after all, he a recent widower, she never married -- and they would adopt me and my siblings and we would live happily and safely ever after.

I used to write him an occasional fan letter -- and he would always write back, in his own hand, on his personal stationery with his home address on Central Park West in New York or from his country home in Connecticut. I treasured the short, but kind letters that were so adult, yet non-condescending.

I used to cut out and save any articles I could find about him. He was in his most active period -- starring on Broadway, on television, directing Broadway shows and operas at the Met.  And yet there was never enough press on him to satisfy me.  Aunt Molly, a professional writer who found my love for Mr. Ritchard both touching and amusing, stepped in -- writing a series of phony press releases about him that used stills from old silent films.  I thought they were hilarious.

                                         Three of Aunt Molly's Mock Press Releases


My father laboriously copied them in his photo lab and we sent a bunch of them to my idol.  He replied with delight that they were "excruciatingly funny! I have put them in a very special section of my scrapbook and was showing them to my dear friend Walter Pidgeon last night.  He wishes someone would write something like that for him, too! Please extend my warmest thanks to your Aunt Molly! She is very clever, indeed!"

My heart leapt for joy!

I was even more excited when he came to Los Angeles with "Visit to a Small Planet" and invited me, my brother and my friend Mary Laing, to visit him in his dressing room after the matinee performance we attended. It was one of the happiest times of my childhood.

He greeted us enthusiastically, laughing when I shyly told him that I thought he was more handsome than Rock Hudson. "I can assure you, my dear, that no one has ever told me that before," he said, smiling. "But sit down and tell me about you. I want to know about all of you."

And so we sat and told him our likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams. He asked questions and, most of all, he listened, his attention never wavering. We told him about our teachers and our pets and a myriad of details about our lives. I quietly told him that my father sometimes frightened me a lot. He took my hand.

We talked about faith and the power of God to heal the most painful wounds.  He said that his faith had saved him when his only child, a son, passed away shortly after birth and when his beloved wife died of cancer. He assured me that faith could be my greatest support and greatest joy, too, and that it was something we would always share. He hugged me as we said goodbye and I felt a wonderful sense of safety and love.


Afterwards, I called Aunt Molly, who was living and working in Ohio at that time, to tell her the news. "Oh," she said, her voice choked with emotion. "I'm so glad! I'm so happy for you that he is such a good man, such a kind soul. I'm so glad he didn't disappoint you."

He never did -- even though he never met and thus never married Aunt Molly. Even though he never adopted me.  Even though I never saw him in person again, the memory of his warmth and kindness, the interest he took in us, in me, when we visited was sustaining. The shared faith kept me hopeful through many dark times.

And I delighted in seeing his television performances and listening to him read "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" on boxed LP's Aunt Molly gave me for my 12th birthday -- records I treasure to this day. And I read articles about him with new understanding -- particularly when Sondra Lee, who had played Tiger Lily in the Broadway production and in all three television broadcasts of "Peter Pan" described him in one as "an absolutely delicious human being, the kindest person I have ever known."

Many years later, when he came to Los Angeles with the Broadway musical "Sugar", there was a free Actors Equity/Screen Actors Guild showing. A close friend of mine, actor Maurice Sherbanee, got tickets. But, at the last minute, I had to go on a business trip and couldn't attend. Maurice went by himself and phoned me later that night to say he was so glad I had missed the show. Cyril Ritchard had had a heart attack onstage, had gone into cardiac arrest and was revived by co-star Larry Kert who quickly administered CPR. "It was terrible," Maurice said. "He nearly died right there in front of everyone. I'm so glad you didn't have to see it." I sent Mr. Ritchard a note when he was recovering at home in Connecticut. He replied that the episode had been frightening but now he was feeling "wonderfully well and my day was brightened even more by your kind note."

Three years later, the outcome wasn't nearly as positive. Appearing in the National Company of "Side By Side, By Sondheim" in Chicago, he had another heart attack just offstage during a Thanksgiving performance. He was admitted to Northwestern Medical Center where he died on December 18, 1977 shortly after turning 80. I heard the news when I was in San Francisco working with Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman on our first book.  Knowing my long affection for Cyril Ritchard, √áhuck brought me the newspaper, then embraced me.

While I grieved the loss of this good man and unique talent, I rejoiced that he had died doing what he loved, still active, still delighting audiences.  And I still remember his inspired silliness, his kindness, his versatility as a director, his singular charm as an actor. He was an unconventional idol, to be sure, for a young tween -- but he brought immeasurable joy and hope to a young girl who needed that so much.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Same Family, Differing Histories

When my brother Mike and his family visited us recently, he spent some time relaxing and reading some of my recent blog posts. After reading my blog about Roots and Wings, where I recounted my departure from home to college, he sighed.  "You're the only one of us to leave home in what could be called a normal way," he said.

While my memory of departure was loving parents letting go, his reality as well as Tai's were to be quite different.  He left home at 15, after years of physical and emotional abuse from our father, to go live with our maternal grandmother in Kansas, helping her on the farm and healing in the warmth of her unconditional love. Tai ran away from home when she was not quite 18, living with friends until she could find a job and a place of her own.

Even in less extreme family situations, siblings grow up experiencing the family and the world in a different way. Birth order, parental situations, and individual personalities can make such a difference in forming one's views of the family and of the past.

That's why a fond memory by one sibling is another's nightmare or may be greeted with a blank stare. That's why one sibling's feelings about aging parents may be different -- because he or she may have experienced the parents you shared at another life phase or in a whole different way.

I read recently that when one writes a memoir -- as I am in the process of doing -- it can be a minefield for family tensions because each sibling has his or her own take on what growing up in the family was like, with some shared and some very divergent memories.

The differences are quite apparent in my own family.

As the eldest child, I tried very hard to be good and to get along with both parents, keeping a low profile when things were not going well with father, doing everything I could to avoid upsetting him. I became very good at hiding.

Mike, an unusually winsome, loving child, found our father's fury and antipathy hard to understand. Once, when he was leaving for work, Father gave him a beating for no particular reason. Mike ran after him, weeping, his arms up, begging for a hug, as father climbed into his car. "Father!" he cried. "You forgot to kiss me goodbye!" Any time father was in a rare good mood, Mike would brighten. If father would take him up on his lap or show him some special attention, he was the happiest little boy alive. Unfortunately, those moments were rare.

Tai was born with spunk and spirit.  The first time father hit her, when she was about two years old, she faced him, nose to his kneecap, hands on her hips, stamped her foot and yelled "Don't you ever, ever, ever do that to me again!" I held my breath. Father laughed and said "I like your spirit, kid!" And, many years later, while the rest of us -- either at home or at a distance -- were quiet when he went on a drinking binge with his stockpiled Cuban rum, Tai ran into the kitchen screaming and smashed his entire irreplaceable stash in the sink, calling him a "hopeless alcoholic" before running off into the night to the house of a friend.

While we all share some memories and experiences -- both fun and painful -- of growing up together, our dramatically different personal experiences, relationships with parents and reactions to what went on, colored our lives in a variety of ways.

I was the first child born to parents in their mid-thirties, on an Air Force base near the end of World War II.  My parents were looking forward to the end of the war and the beginning of a prosperous and promising new life together.  My father, a difficult and conflicted man, greeted me with love and exasperation, with nurturing and verbal abuse. He encouraged me to be the best I could be and to not let my gender hold me back -- even as he treated our mother like a second class citizen.  As a result, I grew up driven, feeling I had to achieve to be loved, and wary of children as life-wreckers, after hearing much too often that having children had ruined my father's life. And yet, having been raised feeling that I was truly loved, I had no difficulty making friends and bonding with teachers, co-workers and some very good men. I got married at 32 and that marriage has survived and thrived for 34 years.

For Mike, the pain of his early years made him wary of commitment, unable to trust, until, in late middle age, he found just the right woman half a world away. A physician and expert in medical informatics, he was working at an international medical center in Bangkok, Thailand, when he met Amp -- a young Thai woman who is truly a twin soul. She's the only person I have ever met who is more frugal than he is. They married when he was 58 and had Maggie when he was 60.  Late in life, he has a happy marriage and a bright, lively toddler daughter -- and the joy and peace of real connection at last.

Tai, born to parents in their mid-forties who felt little but despair over their life situation, was essentially an only child after age eight after both Mike and I left home. She has no memory of our father ever having a job or our parents being happy or living lives with any semblance of normality. She grew up feeling abandoned and alone in a family situation that was increasingly chaotic before she fled for her life. Her growing up experience has made her tough and resilient on the outside, tender on the inside. She married for the first time at 21 and has spent a lifetime working to build a viable family.  It is, perhaps, no accident that she is a nurse who is dedicated to easing others' pain and is an infinitely patient parent to Nick.

It's important, in dealing with our siblings, to honor and respect their experiences, their memories and their very individual world views.  It isn't a matter of arguing whether something did or didn't happen,  whether a parent was this way or that.  The truth lies in each one's singular experience.

I got an email from Mike on the 4th of July, telling me that this was always his favorite holiday because father had always been in a good mood on that whole holiday weekend and always let him shoot a little carbide canon all day if he wanted,  an experience he describes as "pure pyrotechnic bliss. " And there were no beatings, ever, on the 4th of July.  For Mike, it was a blessed time of refuge from life as usual, his favorite holiday of the year.

And so he was celebrating with enthusiasm the other day, buoyed by memories and by happy current realities. He sent me a picture of Maggie celebrating the 4th in her own way.  And I rejoiced in his happiness and feeling of safety and contentment, knowing all that was very hard won.

                                  Maggie celebrating her Dad's favorite holiday - July 4!                            

Friday, July 1, 2011

Feeling the Limits With Adult Children

She was sitting in the gym locker room, furiously wiping tears away, when Kim and I walked in on her the other day. This woman, whom I'll call Joan, told us that she was feeling overwhelmed with fears and regrets: fears that her cherished 30-year-old son was about to make a major commitment to a woman she considered unworthy of him and regrets that she and her husband had ever moved to Arizona.

Their Phoenix-based son was the primary reason -- at least for Joan -- that they decided to leave their home of 42 years in the New York City area to move to the active adult community where we now live.  Their son, however, has his own life: a live-in girlfriend, a home of his own, his own circle of friends. He likes seeing his parents occasionally, but they aren't the center of his universe.

In addition to wondering why she and her husband uprooted themselves to live near a son who can live quite easily, day to day, without them, Joan loathes the Southwestern desert with every fiber of her being. It didn't help that the outside temperature at that point was 113. "Everything here is hot!" she sobbed. "I want to go back to New York!" Yes, they had visited this community briefly -- for a weekend in February --  before making their decision to move to Arizona. But the real reason they came was to be closer to their son.

"So what do you think?" she asked us. "Should I speak to my son frankly and tell him that this woman is trouble? That she's taking advantage of him if she decides to go back to school? That I'm hurt about her moving all the pictures and artifacts I've given him for his new home into the spare room? After all, I'm his mother! Should I tell him all this?"

Kim and I answered as one: "No!"

We told her stories of mothers who stepped over the line and drove their kids away -- emotionally or otherwise. We speculated on the future of the British Mom-zilla, whose harsh, critical email to her son's fiancee went viral over the Internet recently and her dim prospects of a good relationship with her son and future daughter-in-law.  And we had stories closer to home. Kim talked about a friend whose potential mother-in-law made it clear that she disapproved of her son's relationship with her -- and although the marriage has been happy and the relationship between this woman and her mother-in-law was cordial, the closeness that both women might have enjoyed was precluded by that early hurt. And my childhood friend Mary told me that, in her happy 42-year-marriage, there has only been one dark cloud: the insistence of her in-laws that they continue to be the center of their son's life. That has meant more than four decades of annual vacations at the in-laws summer home in Maine rather than the trips Mary longed to take to a variety of places with her young family and with her husband when they became empty-nesters.

And it has meant that Mary learned to step back and let her own three children fly free of the nest. "It's a very hard, painful transition to make when your kids have been your whole life," she says. "But to let them go and live and vacation and love as they please is one of the greatest gifts I can give them.  And, interestingly enough, it has made us closer. When they spend time with us, I know it's because they really want to be with us rather than feeling this heavy obligation."

Letting your adult children go is one thing. Learning to keep your mouth shut is quite another.

Of course, there are times when you can't keep quiet: when your adult child is doing serious, even life-threatening harm to himself or others, with substance abuse or child abuse or neglect or is showing signs of mental illness. Those are times when you intervene with love and with professional help.

But in the choices and decisions of daily life, you may find yourself biting your tongue.

When you see an adult child maneuvering through the minefields of ill-advised relationships, financial mistakes, professional mis-steps, and questionable child-raising strategies, it's incredibly hard to sit back and be neutral. You want to scream: "He's a jerk, for heavens' sake!" or "You have HOW much credit card debt?" or "You quit your job???" or "If you keep giving her everything she screams for, you're in for a rough ride for the next 20 years."

If you can't stay totally silent, it's important to frame your concern in loving, but non-intrusive ways:

"I love you so much and don't want to see you hurt. Most of all, I want you to be happy.  Do you want to talk about your hopes and issues with this relationship? Or not?"

"I have faith that you can manage your life just fine, but I do have concerns when you tell me about this debt. Would you like some help in figuring out a budget or a payment plan that will get you out from under all that sooner?"

"What are you planning for the future? What did you learn from this job experience? How would you like the next to be different? How can I help you right now?"

"I know child-raising is different today and that you're totally committed to being a great parent. I'm just wondering how you set limits and when you say "No". How is she with 'No'?"

There are times, however, when it is just best to keep quiet, as excruciating as that can be. 

 As a parent, you know that no one will love or care for your son or daughter in quite the same way that you do. It's very hard to see kids get hurt or make mistakes, but such experiences add to growth and wisdom.  Your stepping in to spare them all that is not likely to be appreciated.

Adult children need the freedom to love and lose, screw up, and struggle with choices. As a parent, you can be there to offer support and even advice if they ask for it.  But unsolicited advice or what they might see as meddling can drive an emotional wedge between you and your adult child.

When your children were little, you taught them limits: not to interrupt when adults were speaking, to show respect for their elders, to pick up their toys, to hear the word "No" without backtalk or tantrums.

Now that they're grown, you're up against some limits. It can be a delicate balance: to express concern without overstepping into criticism and carping, to care without imposing, to support without smothering, to love and let go.

When Joan asked her, mother to mother, how to handle her doubts about her son's romance, Kim, the seasoned parent of adult children, put it all very succinctly in the locker room that day: "You shut up and pray."