Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Maui Memories

As we get ready to return home to Arizona after a wonderful two-week vacation in Maui, here are a few memories I'd like to share with you.

                                   Three Views of Napili Bay from Our Patio

                                            Our Home Away From Home
                                            Napili Shores - A103
                                           Even the Parking Lot is Scenic!
                                                    The Path to the Beach

Swimming in Napili Bay

                                                     Bob Meditating at Dawn 
                                         Toasting a Friend's Wedding From Maui
                                      Fish Dinner at the Castaways Cafe in Kaanapali
                                          Bob Enjoying the Castaways Cafe
                                         Sunset Tonight from the Seahouse in Napili     

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Honeymoon Is Over -- Thank Goodness!

Maui is a honeymoon mecca.

Young honeymoon couples are everywhere: their beautiful young bodies entwined on the beach, embracing in the surf, their eyes meeting over Mai Tai's in beachfront restaurants, holding hands with newly minted wedding rings shining in the candlelight.

I don't envy them for a minute.  Some do seem truly blissful. However, I can see others struggle, along with the strangeness and sweetness of being husband and wife at last, with the expectations of what a honeymoon should be: with the stress of constant togetherness, of feeling that every minute must be exciting and memorable, not factoring in sunburn, jet lag, indigestion, the letdown after the adrenalin surge of the wedding or any other hopelessly human emotions. And many don't yet realize what a long, sometimes hard, road is ahead as they begin the long journey to becoming a family.

A young newlywed couple was at the next table when we had dinner at the Seahouse, our favorite restaurant in Napili, last night.  They were sweet and loving, but awkward with each other. He kept jumping up to take pictures of the spectacular sunset. She looked embarrassed and a little lost. They fidgeted with their food, struggling to make conversation.

I made some quiet wishes for them: to relax, to simply enjoy the moment, and to know that it's normal to struggle a bit with intensity of this new togetherness -- even if they, like Bob and me, had lived together before marrying. I wanted to reassure them not to worry, that words would come in time. But, of course, these are things that each enduring couple learns in the process of creating a life together in the days, months and years after the wedding.

The honeymoon, even in a magical place like Maui, is just a tentative first step.

Years ago, before Bob and I married, I dreamed of a Maui honeymoon. I had already visited the island several times with a former boyfriend and had all these favorite places I wanted to re-visit with Bob. And despite the fact that he wasn't exactly a swimming or beach enthusiast, Bob was game.

 I planned everything: our flights, the hotel and the whole scenario of our first night: we would rush from our wedding reception to the airport and fly off to Maui immediately. Once there, we would go to our hotel, take a walk on the beach and then have macademia nut ice cream at the hotel's beachfront ice cream parlor before going to our room and making passionate love.

What happened was, well, a series of unanticipated adjustments to this scenario. It was more than 34 years ago, but the memories remain vivid.

We rushed from our reception to LAX in Memorial Day beach traffic, the three of us and our luggage squeezed into my tiny 1976 Honda Civic. (My bridesmaid Jeanne Nishida Yagi was with us in our honeymoon escape, returning to her home in Hilo, Hawaii on another flight.) By the time we changed planes in Honolulu and landed in Maui, it was about 1 a.m. Los Angeles time. We stumbled off the plane in exhaustion, to be hit with high winds and rain.  "I hate it here!" Bob moaned.

Undaunted, I insisted that we take a walk on the beach after we checked in at our hotel. Wind, water and sand stung our faces. "This is horrible!" Bob yelled over the howling wind and thundering surf. "I really, really hate it here."

There was no macademia nut ice cream to sweeten his mood. The ice cream parlor had closed several hours before our arrival.

We trudged up to our room and I took a long, steamy shower before slipping into the elegant white silk gown my 'TEEN Magazine co-workers had given me. I made my grand entrance out of the bathroom and there was Bob, fully clothed, fast asleep, snoring softly, on top of the covers. No amount of shaking would rouse him. He slept soundly through the night. I sat on our balcony and pouted, unaware -- at least for that moment -- of my own starring role in making the beginning of our honeymoon such an ordeal.

It took about three days before we got our collective sense of humor back and stopped pouting and before Bob would go into the warm, tropical water and decide that Maui was his favorite place in the world.

We survived our honeymoon, obviously. But -- except for a fairly dreadful weeklong class on dream theory in Maui in 1993 when I was a graduate student in clinical psychology -- our honeymoon was the least fun of any of our trips to Maui. We expected too much of it and each other.  And we've found that life as long-marrieds is so much more comfortable, loving and fun than it was when we were young and full of so many dreams and expectations.

"The difference is a matter of perception," Bob said over dinner, watching the young couple struggle to converse. "When a relationship is new and, especially after you're just married, it seems you focus on how you're different and are afraid to reveal or discover annoying traits. As you age together, you're aware of the annoying traits of your partner, but their positive qualities and all you share is your primary focus. You've learned to accept the annoyances and celebrate what makes your partner so special."

So I guess I would want to tell this struggling couple that a honeymoon may have its moments, but life together gets even better with time. I would want to tell them how important it is to be kind, to have compassion for each other, to laugh at your own foibles, relax and have fun.

And who knows? Maybe some of the young honeymooners will look back in years to come and smile over their shyness and unease and wonder if there really was a time when they struggled to carry on a conversation. Maybe they'll laugh ruefully, as we do now, at memories of over-orchestrated honeymoons, over-the-top expectations and first impressions of a place now loved. Maybe they'll smile, as we do, at memories of less-than-ideal beginnings that have given way to kindness, acceptance and celebration. Maybe someday they'll know, beyond a doubt, that the best times come well after the honeymoon.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wherever You Go...Why Vacations Aren't a Cure All

The restaurant, one of our favorites, sits on one of Maui's most beautiful beaches. The food is wonderful, the service friendly and efficient, the view at sunset sublime.

But none of this seemed to matter to a thirty-something couple we saw dining there not long ago. They were seated one table away from us, an attractive, well-dressed pair.  As the glorious panorama of a Hawaiian sunset spread before them, they looked past it and away from each other, into some dark place within. They didn't speak a word to each other during the whole hour-and-a-half of their excruciating dinner. Happy talk swirled around them as they sat in angry silence.  The dynamics of this couple, the cold anger with which they regarded each other, brought a slight chill to the room.

And I puzzled over what their story might be.  Had they taken this vacation to save or revitalize their relationship? Were they realizing that nothing external was going to help? That time away together, rather than being refreshing, was hurtling toward disaster?

Vacations can be stressful just logistically. There are travel schedules to meet.  There is unfamiliar food, unpredictable rental cars, tiny and expensive hotel rooms or vacation condos. Vacations always seem to cost more than anticipated and, especially if finances have figured into relationship woes, taking an expensive getaway can add to the stress. And any unexpected stresses encountered on a vacation can speed the implosion of an already teetering relationship.

Many years ago, when Chuck and I were coming apart at the seams in the romantic phase of our relationship (as opposed to the warm, treasured friendship and the long professional partnership we've since shared), he proposed a trip to Las Vegas to help us work out our growing list of emotional issues.

While I thought Las Vegas a curious choice for relationship renewal, I agreed to any last chance for us to talk, to be together and perhaps work things out.

The weekend was an epic disaster. All the way there, he talked about the person with whom he had had a relationship while also seeing me and with whom he had now broken up in order to save our relationship. He said that while he imagined he would get over him -- yes, him -- it would just take time. I sat listening, nodding and quietly wondering "What in the hell am I doing here? Have I totally lost my mind??"

Half an hour out of Las Vegas, the skies opened and torrential rain started to lash the windshield. When we arrived at Caesars Palace, we saw that a flash flood had destroyed the parking lot and every car in it. We waded through knee deep mud, carrying our luggage above our heads, to check in. After we spent the first part of the evening cleaning the mud off our shoes and ourselves, Chuck hit the casino, spending hours silently playing the slots as I sat by in angry exasperation. We went to a late night show where a tenor sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" and Chuck put his head down on the table, sobbing loudly, observed impassively by four thuggish black-suited men in sunglasses (at the midnight show!) who were sitting at our long table. After four drinks and barely negotiating the plank that crossed the still swirling flood waters to our hotel, Chuck passed out on the bed.

 The next morning, he was up early and moving briskly to pack. "This isn't working," he said. "Let's go." We drove back to Los Angeles without exchanging a word. It was the longest car ride of my life.

Being alone together in an unfamiliar place to work on a relationship can be very stressful -- even minus flash floods, thugs in sunglasses, the allures of a casino and specter of mixed orientation infidelity overshadowing everything. You're faced with unrelenting togetherness, are away from support systems, are spending a lot of money and probably not having much fun.

The fact is, if you're unhappy individually or as a couple, you're going to take this with you wherever you go, importing your own private hell into what could be paradise.

In many cases, it makes more sense to stay home and use your money for psychotherapy or marriage counseling instead.

Vacations are, at their best, celebrations -- of your life together, of life transitions, of your shared love of adventure or of a special place. Being alone together in a place you both love can, indeed, help you affirm your strengths as a couple and add yet another gem to your treasured memories.
And they can mean different things at various life phases.

Bob made the observation today that, in our previous trips to Maui, we were both working long hours away from each other and our vacation trips were a chance to enjoy uninterrupted time together. Now that we're retired, the underlying feel of the vacation has changed as well. "We have the gift of being together all the time now, whether we're at home or on vacation," he told me. "So this time, it's a relaxing trip to a place we both love that holds so many wonderful memories. It's a beautiful and familiar part of our shared history." I nodded in agreement.

We were fortunate to come over here expecting to enjoy this magical place as we always have. We came over with positive feelings and the knowledge that we can spend two weeks, every minute, together without feeling claustrophobic. Being with someone you love in a place you both love is a joy. Maui has often renewed our spirits. But the relationship work has been our responsibility in a variety of settings -- mostly at home -- over the years.

To expect a vacation to cure what ails a relationship is to expect too much. Beautiful scenery can't still that well of anger, the rancor between you or the ongoing depression you feel when things are not working out in your life or your relationship.

Whoever you are at home, you are on vacation. Sometimes that makes for silent and chilly evenings in seaside cafes. And sometimes it means that a person or a couple can spread sunshine in an already sun-blessed land.

Yesterday, Bob and I swam happily amid high waves and choppy seas in a wind-tossed bay. Our only companions were a young Japanese couple who caught each wave with excitement and joy, their laughter ringing over the sounds of the crashing surf. They reveled in the blue waters of Napili Bay, squealing with unabashed delight, jumping through and over waves, swimming like a pair of lean and lively dolphins in the rough surf.

Bob and I swam with them, squealing, laughing and jumping the waves, shared joy transcending time, language barriers and experience.  The day -- and they -- were an absolute delight.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Sweet Second Chance at Love

I just got an email from my college friend Lisa that she is getting married next Saturday.

Under any circumstances, this would be a cause for celebration.  But this news is extra special: she is marrying her first and sweetest love: Jack,  her boyfriend from high school whom she continued to date for the first two years of college. They re-discovered each other after many years apart, long marriages (she's divorced, he's a widower), children and grandchildren. They're living the dream of recapturing that young and passionate love to give special joy to their later years.

I was a bridesmaid at Lisa's first marriage on Thanksgiving weekend of 1967 and it was the most gorgeous and lavish wedding ever.  She and Peter had met the previous summer while both were working as camp counselors. He was a teacher, too. It seemed a good match. And it was in many ways, producing two beautiful and accomplished daughters and allowing both spouses the freedom and support to build very successful careers.  But Peter's depression and alcohol abuse were issues, even in the early days. They were devoted to their children and to each other. But the relationship was a difficult one.

After their retirement, things got much worse. They left Michigan for Florida and Lisa settled happily into a new life. However, Peter hated retirement, hated Florida, and drank more than ever and verbally abused Lisa non-stop. Finally, after a frightening and humiliating episode where he was arrested for public drunkenness and fighting with police, Lisa decided she had had enough. After 42 years of marriage, she filed for divorce. He moved back to Michigan. She stayed in Florida, optimistic about building a new life on her own and relieved to be living free of the shadow of his verbal abuse and alcoholism.

A year later, just out of curiosity, she searched online for her first love Jack, the sweetheart of her youth. Neither can remember the reason they walked away from each other all those years ago.  What matters is that after many years of separate joys and heartbreaks, his wife's death and her divorce, Lisa and Jack have found each other again.

They are beating the odds in making the fantasy of re-discovering a young love a warm reality.

So many times, our fantasies of getting a second chance at young love or of a new start remain simply fantasies -- or the fantasy disintegrates in the face of reality. An old love may not be free or willing to get involved once again. And a new romantic start may begin to look, after some time has passed, like that tired old marriage you thought you had left behind.

In a recent blog on the Huffington Post regarding marriage and divorce, novelist Gigi Levangie Grazer raised the excellent point that many women divorce their imperfect husbands and, down the road, end up marrying men very much like them. She questions the wisdom of leaving a non-abusive marriage, especially with children, in search of someone better

It's true that, during a difficult patch in a marriage, it's all too easy to fantasize about how different it might have been with a former love or might be with a new and different love while struggling with what is.

During a period, many years ago, when I was going through a difficult time in my life with some attendant marital tensions, I developed a crush on a smart, attractive and charming man who was making a name for himself in New York publishing.  Nothing ever came of my fantasy-crush for three reasons. First, I love my husband. Second, the man of my fantasies was -- and still is -- an important business contact and I was afraid to upset the lovely balance of our work relationship and warm friendship. Third, he had a serious girlfriend he loved dearly who eventually became his wife. So the fantasy, save for some mild flirtation on both our parts, stayed a fantasy and diminished over time.

Once, over lunch in New York, I expressed a hint of jealousy as he was telling me how he and his girlfriend had spent the weekend.  He smiled, reached across the table for my hand and told me something I've never forgotten: that our relationship was perfect because we could always be at our best with each other without life's daily realities intruding.  "We meet for lovely lunches or dinners, all dressed up and on our best behavior," he said. "You haven't seen me at 6 a.m. You have no idea how I really do dishes or what my apartment looks like. So we can always be just perfect together." I smiled, realizing the foolishness of my fantasy, the sweetness of this friendship and, not so incidentally, my enduring love for Bob, whom I had pledged to love and to cherish, for better or for worse.

Another friend I'll call Susanna never got over Sam, her high school sweetheart, who dumped her one summer in favor of someone he had just met. Both married others soon after graduation. Both were divorced by midlife. Filled with longing for the sweet and innocent love they had shared, she looked him up and they started talking on the phone. She finally moved from California to Virginia to live with him. But, while Sam still had many wonderful qualities, there was an intractable bitterness that had crept into  his character. Never a drinker in college, he drank far too much now. She found that his finances were chaotic as well. And he came with three battle-weary and sullen teenagers who had no interest in seeing their Dad find a new love. After a short time, the fantasy died, their ardor fizzled and Susanna returned to California.

But Jack and Lisa are different.

They have beaten so many of the odds against their re-uniting. At the time they got re-acquainted after 45 years apart, both were free and willing to start over again. After long marriages with others, raising children and managing demanding careers, they have the patience, the communication skills and the wisdom of age that eluded them in their youth.

They have perspective and maturity to know that they're hopelessly human, that they won't always agree, that while their basic selves may be very much the same as all those years ago, time and life experiences have brought changes. They realize that they are the same -- and yet not the same.  They have spent the past year getting reacquainted as lovers at another life stage -- while re-discovering the joy and optimism that they shared in their youth.

In honor of that youth, Lisa and Jack, together with their families, are traveling back to Illinois, to marry at the chapel at Northwestern University this coming Saturday.

They don't regret the time in between, those years apart. The years of loving others, raising children, experiencing loss have added to the richness of their lives and the depth of their joy in finding each other again.

And on Saturday, Bob and I have promised to toast them from the west Maui shore with tropical drinks raised and many good wishes for a lifetime of love and happiness.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Family Legends and Sayings

I recently bought an iPad2 and, among other things, looked forward to a Facetime video chat with my brother Mike. He called and we worked on coordinating our email addresses and making our video visit a reality. At one point, as I fumbled through the set-up process, I could hear my brother sigh over the phone. Then he said, chuckling, "Just push the little button, baby!"

I stopped, relaxed and laughed. This saying goes way back in our family, actually before Mike's birth. It dates back to the time when I was two years old and, for reasons known only to my toddler self, would rush into the bathroom, shut the door and push the lock. For a short time, I would prance around, giggling and gleeful at my own cleverness. Then I would decide I wanted out. But the door wouldn't budge. After trying the door unsuccessfully several times, I'd start wailing, falling to the floor in anguish and despair. Through the door, my father would say "Baby, push the little button. Just push the little button, baby." More often than not, I'd stay on the floor, wails escalating to screams. And my father would finally get a ladder, crawl through the bathroom window and free me once more.

To this day, at any signs of cluelessness on my part (and there have been many), someone in the family will say "Just push the little button, baby!"

Then there is the legend around Mike: when he was a toddler, he dismantled everything from the toaster to the telephone. For years, even after Mike had been out of the house for decades, if father found something falling apart or broken, he would shout "Dammit! He's been working this over!"

During a recent visit, Mike's daughter Maggie was concentrating intensely on removing the knobs from all my lower kitchen cabinets. The minute we spotted her, Mike and I turned to each other and said "Dammit! She's working it over!"  He quickly intervened and stopped any further dismantling of my kitchen.

For my 30th birthday, my father gave me a cassette tape he had made from an old reel-to-reel recording containing an exchange between the two of us that had become a family legend.

I was three years old and Father had come up with a great idea for putting me to bed. Reading one bedtime story was never enough. So, to save time and aggravation, he decided to set up his tape recorder, read and record a story and then play it in an endless loop until I gave up and fell asleep. As he was about to start, I asked if I could tell him a story. What followed was an endless narrative that covered family history, world events, gossip I had picked up from my mother and little known facts (and fables) about various types of animals.

At one point, right in the middle of an impassioned story about my Uncle George's death in World War II and my mother's anguish on hearing the news, I stopped and asked my father "Do you want me to tell you about turkeys, too?"

"Yes," my father said. "But only after you finish telling me about the war."

And I went on...and on .. and on...until my father's soft snores resonated in the background. The tape ends with my childish voice saying with increased urgency: "Father, wake up! I want to tell you another story about when I was a baby! No more stories about animals, I promise!"

To this day, whenever I am going on and on, or have started a major tangent in the middle of a conversation, my brother or sister or husband will ask gently "Are you going to tell me about turkeys, too?"

One particularly standout legend is more primal. Mike is 3-1/2 years younger than I and, for all of our childhood, I heard "Don't hit your brother! He's smaller than you!" I obeyed the orders, but inwardly created an inventory of anger and frustration, telling myself that when he grew up a little more, I was going to get him and get him good.

The moment came when I was 16 and he 13. It arrived as we argued about drawer space in the tiny bedroom he, our sister Tai and I all shared. To make more space for himself in a communal drawer, he had thrown away my treasured diary, but not before reading and memorizing key segments and reciting them back to me. I lunged at him, ready to slap him, when he caught my wrists and held me at bay. I had waited too long! My baby brother was stronger than I! Enraged, I wrested my right hand out of his grasp and, in doing so, accidentally tore the cuff of his shirt. Suddenly inspired and shrieking like a banshee, I began shredding and ripping his shirt off his body as our six-year-old sister sat at our feet, shaking with sobs because she had never seen me angry. By the time our parents arrived to mediate, the shirt was in tatters and we were starting to laugh, well on the way to being friends again.

But to this day, if I look at him a certain way, Mike will put his arms across his chest protectively and plead "Please don't tear my shirt. It's the only good one I have."

Sayings and legends help us to laugh and love together through all the seasons of our lives, connecting past with present, underscoring our cohesiveness as a families, warmly linking what was and what is. Thanks to our memories, our stories, our philosophies that have grown through shared experience, we can work together through momentary annoyances and gently remind each other when we talk too much, are clumsy or clueless.

These life-enhancing legends may live in families of origin or between long-married couples. My husband Bob often wonders how those who are widowed or divorced after long marriages cope with building a whole new history of in-jokes, verbal short-hand and life stories with a new partner -- and where and how does one begin?

The in-jokes may be incomprehensible to another, based as they often are on a moment in time, a shared memory of a time long past, the very fabric of a relationship that has survived so many changes and so many years.

Our family legends, in-jokes and sayings are as irreplaceable as the people who share these with us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Five W's and the Social Security Debate

When I was a freshman journalism student at Northwestern, I was introduced to the five W's important in any story: who, what, when, where, why -- with a bonus "how".

The five W's and the bonus H swirled through my head in the aftermath of the latest GOP candidate debate and the heated exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry over Perry's views on Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. What I found especially frightening was the enthusiastic applause from the audience for Rick Perry as he proposed, essentially, to dismantle Social Security.

WHO are these people? Are they independently wealthy trust fund babies? Do they think they will never grow old? Do they imagine that their fluctuating 401K's will support them adequately -- if they're lucky enough to have them -- and a job? Do they have well-off extended family from whom they can expect support in their dotage? What are they thinking??

WHAT happened to the third rail of politics -- the safety net for the hard-working middle class? The people doing the political posturing about Social Security being such a drag on the economy and the people -- like the President -- so ready to bargain and chip away at the social safety net that we middle class taxpayers have worked and paid for all these years are set for life. They'll never have to worry about paying for food and shelter as they age. They seem tragically out of touch with the rest of us.

WHEN did people start to ingest corporate Kool-Aid and turn on each other? Why can't we stand together and fight for what is legally and ethically ours? We've paid into the system for 30 or 40 or more years. It's true that some will get more from Social Security than they paid in. But a lot will get less -- much less. I have many friends -- as well as my parents -- who died before they collected a dime of Social Security.  Those of us lucky enough to survive to retirement aren't getting charity: we're collecting on the social insurance for which we have paid.  The current political climate seems set on playing one generation against another in an effort to distract us from the inequality and injustice of corporate welfare.

WHERE did all the money go that was supposed to prepare Social Security to thrive through the retirement of the Baby Boomers? I remember a substantial increase in payroll taxes during Reagan's first term with the express purpose of building a reserve. What happened to that? If it was depleted by government borrowing, hard-working, payroll-tax paying citizens are owed a big payback. (And if, as Perry said later, that his objection is to the government's sneak theft of the Social Security reserve funds, I can agree with that. But that isn't what he was saying earlier.)

WHY is Social Security even an issue in the debate when we have two costly wars ongoing, incredible tax breaks for the rich (whose personal wealth has climbed to breath-taking heights) while the increasingly productive middle class has seen wages stagnate -- for those who still have wages at all?

HOW are we going to regain sanity and come up with real solutions to our financial challenges minus political posturing and bipartisan rancor?

At this point, I only have questions.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Danger: Rx Side Effects

The earnest young doctor had all the best intentions. "Your blood pressure is still a little high," he said. "I would like to increase the dosage of your medication."

I nodded meekly, loathe to mention that I have pronounced "white coat syndrome" and my blood pressure always escalates during a medical visit.

It was only when I picked up my new prescription and saw that the dosage had been doubled that alarm bells rang and I rebelled with a phone call to the doctor and a plan: to see, at long last, if lifestyle changes could preclude the necessity of more -- or maybe even of any -- medication.

Doctors and patients alike today have become increasingly reliant on an array of medications for a myriad of conditions and ailments of late middle age.  So many of these are lifestyle related and may be resolved, fully or in part, by changing our lives in lieu of popping a pill.

But saying "Wait!" or "No!" or "Why?" can be hard.

I remember another time when I should have questioned a doctor's decision -- but didn't.

My regular physician was on maternity leave and I went to the doctor filling in for her for a flu shot that fall. He took my blood pressure and shook his head. "Your blood pressure is a little high," he said. "I'm going to change your medication to something different and see if that will make a difference."

I nodded meekly, filled the prescription and continued on with my busy life.

I began to feel increasingly fatigued. But fatigue was my middle name in the fall of 2002.  I was working several jobs, including one 60 hour a week marathon at a chain of psychiatric clinics spread over greater Los Angeles. I drove the freeways at all hours, commuting from one clinic to another, seeing dozens of patients a week. I was also working a part-time regional admissions job for Northwestern University, attending college fairs in California, Arizona and Nevada many evenings and weekends. And I was writing a book on a tight deadline.

The first clue that something might be amiss was the reaction of my admissions office colleagues at Northwestern when I visited the office near Chicago for a series of meetings in late October.  Carol Lunkenheimer, then Dean of Admission, looked closely at me as we talked and laughed over lunch. "Are you okay, Kathy?" she asked quietly, reaching across the table to put her hand on mine. "You're white as a sheet. You look like you're about to faint." I was stunned and promised Carol I would check with my doctor when I got home the next day.

When I called him, he said "You've only been on verapramil for three weeks. Give it another week."

"Oh," I said. "I really don't feel well. Are you sure?"

He was sure.

The next night, after getting up to use the bathroom, I collapsed in the hallway.  "It's nothing," I told my thoroughly alarmed husband. "I'm just tired and half-asleep, that's all."

Two days later, I was driving on a surface road from my home to the local bank. I felt fine. No trace of unusual fatigue or dizziness.  I watched the traffic on the other side of the divided road starting to back up and decided I would take another route home.  It was my last conscious moment before the crash.

I came to about half a mile down the road. I was hanging from my seatbelt, lying over into the passenger seat. The hood of my beloved blue Honda Civic was crumbled and reaching skyward. A young man and woman had opened the driver's door and were hovering over me: "Are you all right? Can you hear us?" they cried.

Gradually, as consciousness returned, I was able to fill in the blanks: I had driven nearly half a mile unconscious, finally crashing into the young couple's SUV -- barely dented -- at a stoplight.  No one was hurt.  My car was totaled. And my life changed immensely -- both short-term and long-term.

Short-term, though I knew immediately that I had passed out as a side effect of the blood pressure medication, the doctor insisted on administering a battery of tests -- from a full spectrum of cardiac studies to a sleep study -- before determining the cause of my loss of consciousness.  In the meantime, my drivers' license was suspended for five months, making commuting to my various job posts a nightmare of buses and trains and my dear husband's generous help.

And when the cause was found to be due to the blood pressure medication, my insurance company increased my auto insurance rate from $620 annually to $2895 annually for three years due to my license suspension. (Many insurance companies don't make a distinction between a prescription drug mishap and an illegal drug related accident -- and perhaps they're correct: the results of both can be deadly.)

Long-term, the incident has helped to change my way of thinking about prescription medications and about choices. Thinking back, I feel I was as culpable as that careless doctor: I didn't question him. I didn't listen to my own body. I didn't trust my own sense -- and the observations of those close to me -- that something was terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, that's too typical.

In an article in this month's AARP Bulletin, experts are quoted estimating that tens of millions of people in this country are suffering every day from unrecognized prescription drug side effects. And Gordon Schiff, M.D. of Harvard Medical School states that "There are a lot of people taking drugs to treat the side effects of drugs."

It can become a health-destroying spiral.

So what can we do?

We can ask questions like "Why are you prescribing this? What are the side effects? How will this drug interact with other medications I am taking? Are there alternatives to medication?

We need to know side effects -- paying attention to those info sheets from the pharmacy and being alert for symptoms.

We need to pay attention to our own bodies, to the subtle and not so subtle signs that something isn't right, that something, in fact, may be very wrong. Doctors are experts on medicine, but we're the experts on how we feel.

Last, but certainly not least, we need to make lifestyle changes in lieu of popping too many pills: taking drastic measures to cut carbs and sugar and step up our exercise and lose excess weight when the doctor says we are pre-diabetic instead of relying on medication to lower our blood sugar levels. We need to get serious about stress management, weight control, diet and exercise if high blood pressure is a problem.

Our efforts may not totally preclude the use of prescription drugs, but working in collaboration with our doctors and taking an active role in our own health care simply makes sense.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Times of Our Lives - First and Last

There are some memorable times in our lives. First times stand out: the first time you rode a bike totally on your own, your first kiss, the first time you made love, the first time you held your newborn baby.

Then there are the last times -- some we recognize at the time and some we don't.

Some last times are clear in my mind.

Like the last time I walked through our Valencia home. Or the last time I left my office at UCLA. The last time I took the commuter bus and said "Goodbye" to all my commuting friends. The last time I took a curtain call as an actress. Or the last time I cuddled my beloved cat Marina, feeling her sweet, joyous, tragically short life ebbing away.

There are other last times I remember so well when I didn't know it was the last time: like the last time I saw my college friend Lorraine. As we parted, she embraced me and whispered in my ear "Let's not wait another 20 years to see each other again." Six weeks later, she died suddenly at the age of 42.

I remember the last time I saw my mother. Bob and I had lunch with her as she discussed old boyfriends and said that if she could lose weight, she'd love to have a torrid affair, but would never, ever get married again. The memory makes me smile. It was such a typical conversation, such a typical time with my mother. None of us had any idea that the next day she would be dead.

Nor did I suspect that Aunt Molly was only days away from death when I held her in my arms and promised to do all I could to keep her in her home if, well into the future, she were to become ill or disabled.

If I had known these were the last times I would see Lorraine, my mother and Aunt Molly, would I have embraced them more tightly? Held them longer as we parted? Been more open in telling each of them how much they were loved? Maybe. But some of the sweetness of the memories of these last times was that they were so ordinary and might have been quickly forgotten if not for what came after.

There are other last times that pass unnoticed and unremembered.  When was the last time I danced on pointe? My last real tap dance? The last time I attended Mass with an open and joyous heart?

I wonder about other last times: the last time I'll go to the beach, the last time I'll make love, the last time I'll fly, the last time I'll feel the comfort of Bob's arms, the last time I'll see little (or not so little) Maggie? Will I know this is a last time? Or will it be an ordinary moment destined to live in bittersweet memory? Maybe some of these last times have come already. I hope that most of them are years in the future.

We never know about so many of our last times. But in the still warm autumn of our lives, perhaps the lesson is to embrace each person we love, each experience we cherish, each little moment in our lives fully -- as if this could well be the last time -- and feel the joy, savor the moment and say "I love you!" as often and fervently as we possibly can.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Celebrating Ourselves As Is

I was laughing in the locker room at the gym this morning with my neighbor Marcia as we examined our sweaty gym clothes, wilted hair and make-up free faces and talked about how good it felt to wear old, eccentric gym get-ups, to sweat and to not care if anyone saw us with bad hair and no makeup.

We're not into letting ourselves go, but, rather, we're embracing ourselves as is, in natural process of aging.  I stopped coloring my hair several years ago. Since retirement, I dress casually and rarely wear makeup. It feels wonderful! What a joy it is to stop worrying about how others see me.

We all come into our later years with different perspectives on physical aging. Some mourn lost beauty. Some work hard to hang onto their good looks. Some relax into gentle, white-haired older age. I'm among the latter.

It may be even more of a relief to me than most to relax and just enjoy being myself at this stage because during much of my working life, looks mattered a great deal. I spent so much of my youth, especially, struggling to meet impossible standards of beauty.

I think, with certain sadness, about what a negative view I had of myself physically when I was in my twenties. My dear friend Phyllis and I were wondering together the other day about why we didn't appreciate our own healthy good looks when we were young. For me, because of my occupational choices, it was particularly difficult.

When I was an actress, appearance was a huge part of getting work. Casting people were often seeking a certain look and if you didn't have that, no amount of acting talent could compensate. This was well before the stardom of unconventional looking and marvelous actresses like Linda Hunt or Kathy Bates. I would spend an hour on makeup, gluing on false eyelashes, fussing over my curly hair, wearing clothes that skimmed my muscular, large-boned yet normal weight body. I was called fat and heard, over and over, that I wasn't pretty.  I played young character roles, some hazardous to a good self-image.  In my last professional gig, in the West Coast premiere of the play "Dylan",  I was Elena Antoine, a socialite so disgusting, inside and out, that even cash-strapped, notorious womanizer Dylan Thomas has to think about her offer of $5,000 to go to bed with her (and while he is thinking, his wife Caitlin rushes in and starts beating her up and Elena flees in terror.)

                                             Scenes from My Tormented Twenties

                                                        Three Acting Pictures 


In my years at 'TEEN Magazine, I was constantly aware of the need to be attractive. Our photos were often featured in the magazine. Some of my co-workers were former models, as well as trained journalists, and they were -- and many still are -- gorgeous. I was well-regarded as a writer, but struggled to meet the staff image of young, slim and hip.

                                                 Two 'TEEN Publicity Photos


And as a freelance writer and book author, I was aware that being telegenic was important.  This was years before the current realities of author "branding" and platforms. I started out O.K.  But stress, depression and grief due to devastating losses took a toll and I experienced an alarming weight gain as I reached my forties. My dramatically fluctuating weight was hazardous to my career and to my self-esteem.

As time went on, looks began to matter even more for authors. When I had quit acting, I rejoiced over the fact that looks didn't matter so much in writing, that I would never again hear "Do you have any film on you?" But as entertainment conglomerates began to take over publishing, looks -- and film on you -- began to matter a lot.

There was controversy over publishers' dictums to authors to spiff up their looks. The most tragic example was novelist Olivia Goldsmith, who wrote an angry op-ed piece about pressure from her publisher to get a chin-tuck. She wondered why Norman Mailer and John Updike had never been nagged about their jowls. But, no stranger to previous plastic surgeries, she finally agreed to have the chin tuck. The 54-year-old author of "The First Wives Club" went into a coma a few minutes after anesthesia was administered and died eight days later without ever regaining consciousness.

As we age, we all have a choice to embrace our changing bodies and evolving selves.  What do you celebrate most about being at this stage of life? Are you more comfortable or less? Are you more accepting of the person you have grown to be?

I love settling into my age. I look every day of my 66 years and I don't mind at all. I'm working hard to eat healthy meals, lose weight and work out -- in order to live longer in good health.  My looks are unremarkable here at Sun City Anthem. It's delightful. I happily go out in public with short-cropped hair and no make-up. I work out and sweat at the gym every day. I've never felt more comfortable in my own skin.

It's delicious to feel such comfort, to feel that no one is looking at me or evaluating my telegenic qualities. It feels good to stop trying to be beautiful and to enjoy my cosmetically imperfect, but perfectly healthy body.

                                                  Scenes from My Serene Sixties

                                  With my beloved sister-in-law Amp - May 2011                  
                                         With kitten Sweet Pea - June 2010

It feels so good to be completely myself, to live with joy, not judgments.

It feels lovely to be at a point in life when the content of my character, the kindness within, my thoughts and opinions have come to mean so much more than appearance. What I had within, all those years ago, underneath the false eyelashes, makeup, wigs and fluctuating figure, always mattered most to me.

Now there is the freedom to celebrate what matters and discard what doesn't.

I'm done with makeup, high maintenance red nail polish,  false eyelashes, uncomfortable clothes and worries about what others think.

With God as my witness, I will never wear pantyhose again!

I am thrilled that I am unlikely to hear that I'm not pretty enough or thin enough or that I otherwise don't fit the image expected of me.

I fit who I am just fine. At last, thank goodness! At last.