Monday, January 30, 2012

Living with Regrets

When the music came over the sound system at the gym this morning, I was transported from the sweaty, striving for fitness present to a long ago time:

                                         Come Saturday morning,
                                         I'm going away with my friend....

My mind traveled back to 1969 -- when Michael Lynn and I saw the movie "The Sterile Cuckoo" on one of our first dates. This song -- "Come Saturday Morning"  was the theme music from that movie and it became a special song for us as well as our sweet relationship of hundreds of Saturdays was first beginning. He was an incredibly gentle, good-looking man with sandy blond hair, kind blue eyes and a sparkling smile. We shared a cautious approach to life, having largely deferred romance and relationships in college -- he at USC, me at Northwestern -- because we were so concentrated on completing our degrees and getting established in the workplace. He was a design engineer at Lockheed. I was beginning my writing career specializing in self-help psychology and health articles for 'TEEN Magazine.

We didn't take stability for granted: my father had lost his career years before to alcoholism. His father had left his mother for another woman when Michael was a toddler and his brother Jeff a newborn infant. And when Michael's father died of a heart attack some years later, he was already a distant memory to his two sons. Growing up with a single mother, Michael knew a lot about financial constraints and early responsibility.

And so we learned to play together -- going to the beach, going out for dinner at nice restaurants -- a first for both of us -- and traveling to places we had never dreamed we would go. It was with Michael that I first came to love Maui. It was with Michael, my first post-college boyfriend, that I started to become an adult. He was not my first love, but we were each other's first lovers and our time together was incredibly sweet and fun and memorable. My parents were fond of him. His wonderful mother showered me with love and kindness.

My only regret is not that we didn't end up together: we both married some years later to others who were both better matches for the people we had become and who continue to bless our lives with love both cherished and abiding.

No, my regret, looking back, is that I wasn't a nicer person then.

My immaturity and my residual anger over a failed relationship with my first love in college could, at times, darken our days together. These were times when I was critical and shrewish and a general pain in the ass. My youthful self-absorption and my anger about my unrequited college love, so unfairly displaced onto Michael, made me a trying companion at best. But Michael's patience, kindness and decency allowed our relationship to survive much longer than it would have with a less generous man.

What does one do with regrets?

Some people are consumed by them.  Some people experience them as bittersweet recurring thoughts. Some see them as learning experiences.

And what do we tend to regret most?

A recent study revealed that people carry the most regrets in the areas of education, career and romance -- with few of us, even in these economically uneasy times, expressing financial regrets.

So what can you do with such regrets?

Explore the possibilities of changing your life to ease some regrets.  My husband Bob regrets not getting more out of college, his years at Berkeley being ones of enthusiastic protesting, folk singing and exploring hedonistic pleasures uneasily coupled with times of deep loneliness. Academics were a somewhat lower priority.  A brilliant man with a thirst for learning, he deals with some of his long-time regrets by making learning a daily activity -- taking courses online, on video and at the ASU center here in our community -- in physics, economics, history, philosophy and a myriad of other interests.

My cousin Caron, who passed up college for a happy marriage to her high school sweetheart, went to community college after her children were grown and found that she loved science -- and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. The experience hasn't caused her to try to forge a career in science -- she wouldn't change anything about her life as a wife, mother and, later on, as a nurturing school secretary to several generations of elementary school kids. But she loves discovering at this stage of life just how smart she is and how exciting science can be.

Do you regret career choices -- or making a choice by default? Career changes have become the norm these days -- often out of economic necessity, but sometimes because people are putting more value on finding work that is meaningful.

When she was young, my sister Tai worked a series of jobs she did well but hated. She regretted not taking our mother's advice to go into nursing, but didn't see a way to change her situation.

Then she had a major medical emergency -- an aneurysm that nearly ended her life -- and, as she lay recovering, the thought occurred to her that "This is not a dress rehearsal!" and she resolved to find a way to go back to school and get a nursing degree.

 It was far from easy. She was a newly single mother of a toddler. Money was tight. She worked nights as a nursing aide and went to school days, entrusting her daughter to the community college day care center by day and to her soon-to-be ex-husband at night for several years. But, in the end, she had a career she loved -- and still loves -- as a labor and delivery nurse and a means to support her daughter on her own.

I know of some romantic regrets that have been resolved in surprising ways.  My college friend Lisa always felt a pang of regret that she broke up with her high school sweetheart, whom she also dated her first two years of college. But life went on. She got married shortly after graduation to a man she loved and with whom she had two daughters. They were married more than 40 years and built a life together that came apart after his drinking escalated post-retirement. Once alone, Lisa explored the Internet and found her long-lost love, now widowed. They happily re-discovered their love and were married this past fall.

You may not happen to, or even desire to, re-discover a lost love or go back to school but you can ease the sting of regret by doing what you can in the present to learn something new or explore a career shift or to take lessons learned from past relationships and use these to improve or enhance your current one.

Start forgiving yourself.  Forgiving yourself is critical to moving on with your life. Allowing yourself to ruminate, to beat yourself up, to continue to mourn what might have been keeps you locked in an unchangeable past. It also precludes making the regret a positive force in your life by learning from it and then moving on, wiser and more compassionate for your experience.

Ask yourself what your regrets can teach you now.  When you find yourself looking back with regret, you're looking at a variety of chances to learn from your life experiences. Perhaps one can learn to think over choices more carefully, or to be open to change and new opportunities, or to be kind.

The latter is my takeaway from my own regret over the young woman I was when I darkened some of Michael Lynn's days. I am a kinder person now.

Some of this is due to growing maturity and insight.

Some of it is due to life's humbling experiences that have exorcised my youthful arrogance.

And some of my better self has evolved from knowing a loving young man with a sparkling smile who was so kind then and whose gentle friendship through the years -- with birthdays always remembered and Christmas cards that always make the season merry and phone calls at critical times like when my parents died, when his mother died, when I faced thoracic surgery -- has taught me a great deal about kindness and forgiveness.

                                       We'll travel for miles with our Saturday smiles
                                        And then we'll move on
                                       But we will remember
                                       Long after Saturday's gone....

When our romantic relationship was coming apart so many years ago, there was an anguished moment when Michael asked me "The years we've been together, the experiences we've had, the love we've shared....doesn't any of that mean anything to you?"

I don't remember what I replied then.

But now I look back and think that all those long ago Saturdays and other days with Michael Lynn mattered immensely. Learning lessons in playing, in love and in forgiveness from my sweet friend has meant so very much.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Change in Fantasies

I remember it with the clarity of yesterday: the moment when, as a junior in college, I was sitting around a dorm room with some friends and my roommate Ruth suddenly asked the group: "If you could have sex with a movie star, which one would you choose?"

This fired imaginations all around and, as I remember, Sean Connery and Paul Newman emerged as the most popular fantasy lovers. When my turn came, I shrugged. "I wouldn't want to have sex with a movie star," I said. "Actors are so self-centered in general. I don't find them appealing."

The others looked at each other and rolled their eyes. "But if you HAD to," Ruth insisted. "If you absolutely HAD to have sex with a movie star, who would it be?"

I thought the options over and finally said "Jack Lemmon."

The group erupted with derisive laughter. "Jack Lemmon???" Ruth gasped between convulsions of mirth. "Why in the world would you pick him? He's not sexy at all!"

"Yes, but he looks like he'd be a nice person," I said, a bit defensively. "That means a lot to me: a guy being thoughtful and good to me -- movie star or not."

My dorm mates snickered.

How times change.

Movies stars are less on my mind these days than thoughts about the times ahead. Fantasies about movie star sex -- fueled by youth and the vast expanse of endless possibilities on the horizon -- have given way to reality-fueled fears and fantasies about what future remains and what it may hold.

I talked with my friend Mary -- whom I'm going to visit again next week -- yesterday and she told me the sad news that her husband John has gone downhill alarmingly -- both physically and cognitively -- in the two months since I last saw them.

My dear friend Sister Rita -- whom I will also visit next week -- is fighting cancer.

My friend and neighbor Phyllis is having a very difficult recovery from thyroid surgery two weeks ago. She has lived with cancer for some years now and is a champion at bouncing back. But this surgery -- which did not involve cancer -- has laid her low. She is in pain and has no energy. Her voice is weak and raspy, words coming between gasps. She called me last night and said something I've never heard her utter before: "I feel like I could die. I've never felt so bad before."

And it makes my heart ache for these friends I love so much. And it makes me think about my own future as well.

How many healthy years do I have left? Will there be enough time to write the books I long to write? To do the traveling we still want to do? To enjoy the ordinary, everyday routines of life: exercise, errands, going to the movies and the library and just having great conversations with Bob?

I have fantasies of racing the clock to do and enjoy it all. And a new take on the word "when..." has crept into our conversations. It came up after we cleaned the house today. Leaning against the kitchen counter, suddenly weary from his efforts, Bob said "I suppose there will come a time -- not yet, but someday -- when we will probably hire someone to do our housecleaning."

I nodded, thinking of a time when arthritis and age would preclude the sweeping, mopping and vacuuming we had just finished.

"But I always want to do our own laundry," Bob added. "I can't imagine asking anyone else to wash our clothes, can you?"

"We'll keep on doing the laundry," I agreed.

Unspoken as yet are some fleeting thoughts about the future: will we be able to manage taking care of our home and ourselves for the rest of our lives? Will we outlive all our pets? And, if so, when is too late -- in all fairness -- to adopt another cat? When we finally trade in our 10-year-old car for a new one -- hopefully, not for another few years -- will that car be our last? How will we manage at some future time if neither of us can drive anymore?

And death, which seemed so impossibly far away in youth, has become something we can readily imagine these days. When I think of dying, I hope it will be as my parents, my aunts and my grandmother died -- suddenly, while fully living life. My preference, of course, is that this quick demise will come at a much older age -- like Aunt Molly or my grandmother -- rather than my parents, who were my present age when they died.

Such musings have prompted us to update our wills, health directives and power of attorney documents. There is a list of people to contact, our wishes regarding funeral arrangements and provisions for any surviving pets.

Such thoughts also highlight the wisdom of not putting off what's important -- whether it's writing those books I've always wanted to write or taking those trips to see ailing dear ones or to go on faraway adventures or simply saying "I love you so much!" to those who matter most to me.

Yes, as the years have passed, my fantasies have changed. I haven't thought about Jack Lemmon for ages.

On the other hand, if George Clooney -- who is sexy and seems like a nice guy, too -- made me an offer...well, I could be persuaded.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Memories to Keep -- and a Giveaway!

Our memories live in so many places: in musty photo albums and diaries, in boxes full of the memorabilia of generations before us. Our memories live in stories we tell each other about the past and about family members no longer alive. Our memories live in our hearts.

My brother Mike called me not long ago to ask me to start a project: to bring to life some of the people his children will know only in old photos. "You know so many of the stories and the people in those photos," he said. "I wish you would do more than just label them -- although that's important, too. Could you maybe make little memory books so my children will have some idea about who these people were? I want them to know Aunt Molly from her childhood on -- and how we loved her and what an impact she had on our lives."

He's right that I know a lot of the stories our parents, Aunt Molly and other long-departed relatives told. When I was a little girl, my favorite stories were the true ones. I would pester my mother, my father, Aunt Molly, Grandma, Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Ruth for stories about when they were children.

For my mother, her mother and her sisters Evelyn and Ruth, these were stories about close family life on a Kansas farm, in the days when farming was a family tradition not a corporate enterprise and in a small town where friendships spanned generations.

For my father and his sister Molly, childhood stories revolved around early loss -- their father died when they were very young -- and early hardship as my father struggled to support the family as a child actor in Hollywood films and vaudeville. They lost their mother when Molly was a teenager and my father a young college student -- and they both worked their way through UCLA -- and shared a lifelong bond forged in hardship and in love, despite their considerable personal differences.

While planning (and procrastinating) on this family memories project, I came across some wonderful digital scrapbook software that is making my task much easier. It is called and it offers wonderful software suites (not only for memories in general but also for weddings and for photo albums with a special flair) and templates for scrapbooks, and memory books for all occasions. I'm using the My Memories Suite software for my photo and text memory book. For the truly creative, music and videos can be added to the mix. You can even record your own narration for your family's story to go along with the photos and videos!

I've started small -- with a test memory book on Aunt Molly who was, of course, my very favorite family member. I'm using a lovely, nostalgic template -- but have removed some of the beautiful art flourishes in order to have more room for text. (It's very flexible that way.)  Here are my first test pages. Those of you who have read my previous writings about my beloved Aunt Molly will understand how much this fledgling memory book will mean to me and my family. I'm going to be adding a lot more pages and more decorative flourishes to this book as I get more confident and inspired. But this is my tentative beginning.


As I've been working on these pages, I've been thinking of so many of you who are so much more artistically talented than I am and all the beautiful projects you might like to make. There is a lot you can do with this software, I'm finding. You can keep a memory book or scrapbook as an online project or you can arrange to have it printed into family treasure to hand down through the generations.

If you feel inclined to try such a project, too, I'm offering a Giveaway: one reader will win a My Memories software package, valued at $39.97. How do you enter? It's easy.

1. Just go to the My Memories website and check it out. You can access the site via this link:

2. Pick your favorite digital paper pack or template.

3. Come back to this blog post and leave a comment about your favorite template and what kind of a project you envision doing with it.  That's all it takes to participate in the Giveaway!

For those of you who are interested in buying the software right now, My Memories is offering a special discount to my readers: $10 off the regular price.

How do you get the discount? Go to and click on the software suite you wish to buy. On check-out, enter the following code for your discount: STMMMS26291

This software is a user-friendly, high tech approach to keeping your family memories alive -- not only for you, but also for your children, grandchildren and those who come after. It's a great way to make sure that those old photos sitting around in boxes can tell a story about you and your family for generations to come.

My brother and I have been coming up with all kinds of ways we want to introduce his young children -- and my sister's child as well -- to those we knew -- and a few we didn't -- who lived large in life and in our memories. If the the new baby they're expecting this summer turns out to be a boy, Mike and Amp are thinking of naming him Henry Patrick after the grandfather and great-grandfather we never knew in life, but who has lived on in our imaginations as we've heard the stories and studied the pictures of him from nearly a century ago.

The very best memories of all, of course, come from spending treasured time with someone who will always live on in our hearts. The next generation can't possibly know what a delight it was to run into the ocean holding Aunt Molly's hand or to hear the sound of her laughter, feel the warmth of her embrace or spend the enchanting times with her when she would spin poetry for us as easily as making conversation. But maybe, with our stories, through our memory books and through the love and laughter we pass on to them, Aunt Molly will live on as a very special family member in their loving memories for many years to come.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Looking at Youth From the Other Side of the Timeline

A 23-year-old writer for the teenage magazine Twist did a phone interview with me the other day.

Hearing her nervous adherence to a list of questions, her earnestness, and the youthful exuberance in her voice made me smile and took me back to a very different time and place.

I remember turning 23 just before finishing graduate school at Northwestern. I walked along the campus lakeshore that birthday and pondered my future. I wondered if I could be happy working at a teenage girls' magazine. It wasn't an idle question: that, in fact, was what was looking like my best job prospect and I was feeling disappointed, anxious and unsure of the future.

My parents had begged me to come back to Los Angeles after I finished my Master's degree instead of heading to New York as I had dreamed. They were aging fast and still had a teenager at home. The teenager, my sister Tai, was depressed, distraught and defiant. They needed help. "Just give us two years," my mother said. "Besides, it's cheaper to live in L.A. You can get a head start in paying off your student loan."

The only female-oriented national consumer magazine edited from Los Angeles at the time was 'TEEN. I had decided, a year in advance, to learn all I could about this magazine and its competitors. I did my final graduate research project on the evolution of teenage girls' magazines post World War II: a comparative analysis of SEVENTEEN, INGENUE and 'TEEN, the biggest circulation leaders at the time. Now, my move back to L.A. looming, I thought and fantasized about how it might be to start my career at 'TEEN, to give advice to young girls, to help smooth the rough spots of these vital growing years -- not to mention giving help and support as well to my distressed teenage sister. I decided that it all might be well worth my time.

And so it was: I spent the first nine years of my career at 'TEEN as Feature Editor, writing self-help articles and columns, giving advice to an uncommonly responsive audience, working with a wonderful staff of peers -- some of whom have become lifelong friends. As jobs go, it was not only my first, but also my best employment experience -- and the best possible beginning for my working life.

Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I wanted more. I aspired to write books. And I did. I aspired to do television -- either as an actress or as a talk show guest. And I did. I thought it might be nice to be rich and famous. Well. I learned to be satisfied being solvent. And sort of semi-famous. But the career dreams that mattered most to me did come true.

And so it was funny, the other day, to time travel back for a moment: to be -- at once -- that 23-year-old grad student imagining a future and the 66-year-old looking back on a career largely in the past while talking with another eager 23- year-old working for a new magazine for teenage girls. This is, to be sure, a very different time to be 23. But some things are simply timeless.

Being on the other side of life's timeline -- beyond the dreams of a great career, beyond the major demands of such a career -- keeps giving me chances to reflect back on lessons learned.

What did I learn from my adventures out into the world of work? If we had been having coffee and talking casually, what advice would I have given that sweet 23-year-old reporter?

I think I would emphasize the following:

What looks like an obstacle may be an opportunity.  It's harder than ever these days for young people to get a career foothold. So many opportunities seem to be tenuous and disappointing financially -- endless internships and low-paying jobs. But going for the experience and living on a sparse budget may be well worth one's time. And good experience, prestige and big money do not invariably go together.

It's hard to overstate how disappointed I was to be returning to L.A. when I was 23 instead of following my dreams to New York. I was mortified to be planning to work at a teenage magazine -- something I wouldn't have been caught dead reading as an intellectually snobbish teenager (but came to enjoy as a more free-spirited twentysomething). My best friend among my journalism school classmates was headed to the Wall Street Journal, where, in just a few years, he began to cover the White House and travel with Presidents. Other classmates landed at The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, McCall's and The New York Times. 'TEEN seemed a singularly unpromising beginning. Except it wasn't. Even though the pay was ridiculously low, even by 1968 standards, and I lived in a one room studio for years, it was worth the financial sacrifices. The staff was young and we were given much more responsibility and editorial freedom than our peers at other publications. In time, I developed the writing specialties -- psychology and health -- that have defined my entire career. I had the opportunity to travel the world on assignment and to write to a wonderfully responsive audience. 'TEEN was exactly where I needed to be.

I guess I would advise a young counterpart to seize an opportunity, even if it isn't your ultimate dream, and make a resolution to learn everything you can from that experience. That is quite often how careers in competitive fields and particularly in these times tend to grow.

You'll discover some of life's greatest adventures and treasures when you're not looking for them.  It's a matter of saying "Yes!" to growth, to learning new skills, to going in a new direction. If the career you thought you had always wanted isn't working out or if fate or changing interests seem to be taking you in a different direction, go with the flow -- and just see what happens.

I learned so much and grew tremendously from taking every assignment the publisher at 'TEEN doled out to me -- and it all led to some memorable life experiences -- spending a week in a wilderness prison camp for young male first time offenders in British Columbia, following a group of aspiring teenage models on a whirlwind trip of the fashion capitals of Europe, interviewing young Native Americans on the reservations and in urban areas just before the historic occupation of Alcatraz, spending a day in a mortuary with a young funeral director in rural Ohio who was co-teaching a high school class in death education. The memories and the growth experiences were endless.

And I found my career in psychotherapy in the course of one of the most horrible job experiences I've ever had. During a low period in my writing career, I took a day job as a research co-ordinator at a psychiatric hospital where the top administrator arbitrarily fired people depending on the hospital census. Pink slips were issued with paychecks every week. There was little team spirit and lots of back-biting. One of my supervisors made cruel comments daily about my weight. There were days when I cried throughout my 68-mile commute home.

But, in the midst of all this misery, I made an interesting discovery: I seemed to have a knack for connecting with and calming seriously mentally ill patients -- even though I wasn't a therapist at the time. Several of the doctors noticed and urged me to go back to school for a clinical degree. They wrote recommendations for my applications to graduate school. And within a year, I was on my way - working full-time during the day, going to school at night -- to a graduate degree in clinical psychology -- something I might never have pursued if not for the experience with patients at this hospital -- and the encouragement of some wonderful psychiatrists and psychologists whom I remember with gratitude to this day.  So, even when things look unpromising, you never know.

Life can have many other surprises in store for us. I have seen friends -- or clients -- so desperate to meet that one special person only to have the prize elude them time after time. It happened to me, too,  at least once or twice. And then, when I least expected it, when I went half-heartedly to a conference at USC, I met Bob, now my husband of nearly 35 years. I was burned out on love at the time. I was sick of dating. I couldn't bear the possibility of more heart-break. My hair was a mess. I was in a bad mood. I had a prominent pimple on my nose. And yet, there he was. And he noticed and came to love the imperfect, all-too-human person I happened to be. And I bounced back from my romantic burn-out to share his feelings.

So I guess I would tell the 23-year-old something like this: It makes sense to have a plan and goals and a direction for your life. But be prepared to be surprised, to have some plans replaced by new ones, to have completely unexpected adventures and experiences, friendships and love enrich your life as the years go by.

You can learn even more from failure than from success. At 23, I would have had a hard time hearing and truly believing this. I so feared failure then, feeling one wrong step would send me into an endless spiral down to professional oblivion. It took time and maturity to realize that challenges and failures are as much a part of life's rhythm as success.

I've certainly enjoyed success when it has happened. One can become quickly accustomed to the attention and acclaim that come with a well-reviewed or best-selling or award-winning book -- and my first book (and several others later on) was all that. I can look at old video-tapes of me talking with Oprah, Matt Lauer, Deborah Norville, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, Richard Simmons or Bryant Gumbel and recall that I accepted such attention simply as my due. I enjoyed the perks of success a lot, but I don't remember learning much from all the hoopla.

I learned much more from my books that didn't sell, from the times I didn't get a role as an actress or was passed over as a talk show guest. I learned a tremendous amount from failed romantic relationships and friendships -- lessons about the value of authenticity, of embracing a setback instead of being devastated by it, of accepting another person as is instead of trying to change him, of not losing my self in the thrill of a new relationship or in what I came to see as the temporary high of a moment of success.

And my failures have taught me that I'm not entitled to an easy life -- even if I'm talented and even if I've worked hard. I've learned during the rough times that success isn't a given or an endless loop, that life offers no guarantees -- only challenges and as much happiness as one decides to have.

You find your greatest triumphs not by chasing success, but by following your heart.  I realized this with new clarity some years ago during a conversation with a very wise young editor/publisher in New York. Gene Brissie was the editor of my very successful first book at Simon and Schuster and was later editor or publisher of five of my books for Simon and Schuster and Putnam's. One day, when I was experiencing one of the low points in my career, when some of my book ideas had crashed and burned and I was feeling discouraged, Gene asked me one question: "Of all the books you've written, which ones did you have to write? Which ones came from your heart?"

I thought for a moment about the eight books I had written and had published at that time. "There were two," I replied.

"And how did those two do?" he asked.

"They did the best," I said, the realization dawning. "Those two books have been my most successful."

"So ask yourself what else you really have to write," he said gently. "Listen to your heart."

Gene followed his own heart into a career change not long ago and is now a literary agent -- my literary agent -- and he is still encouraging me to write from the heart.

Following your heart in pursuing a career or a passion can keep you motivated through the tough times --   through some disappointments or some crummy day jobs that sustain you financially on the way to making your dream reality or experiences with cranky supervisors or people who are only too happy to tell you that you can't do what you want to do or the setbacks that come to everyone. If you love what you're doing or what you hope to do eventually, if you have a sustaining dream for your life, you'll find success. It may be somewhat different from the success you originally envisioned. The dream may change over time. But when you're living life congruent with your passions, success will happen in so many ways for you.

And, from the vantage point of 66, I think back on my life and see a timeline filled with hard work, wonderful people and experiences, heartbreak and challenges, many tears and enormous good fortune. Overall, I look with wonder at the joy I've had in following my heart, living my passions and encountering success and happiness and love -- sometimes when I least expected.

And what would I say to that 23-year-old reporter today? "Use times of trouble, frustration and disappointment to grow and enjoy your life as it unfolds, day by day, moment by moment. Don't miss the joy of today by focusing only on the next step. Follow your heart and your passions -- and be open to all of life's surprises!"

Would she listen? Could she understand? Perhaps she simply has to live her own dreams and disappointments in the unique rhythm of her own life.  I can only quietly wish her much happiness and wisdom and great adventures along the way.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Psychological Immobility

Sometimes friends and acquaintances, knowing I'm a psychotherapist, will ask me what I most disliked hearing in therapy sessions.  I've been thinking about this lately. There are, of course, situations that raise major concerns for therapists -- like admitted or suspected child abuse, domestic violence or threats of violence against the therapist. And, through the years, I've seen those -- from a court-ordered pedophile to a client pulling a knife on me during a session.

But day to day, in most practices, such instances are unusual. In the daily practice of helping people who are sad, anxious or in conflict, several phrases that set my teeth on edge do occur to me. I can't speak for all therapists, but the ones topping my own list are:

That's just the way I am.
That's just the way I was raised.
It's my parents' fault because...

I dread hearing these phrases because they tell me that this is a person who may be allergic to new ideas, to the hard work of therapy, to real change.

That's just the way I am is often uttered by a spouse in marriage counseling. It communicates some unpromising sentiments such as "I don't love you enough to make an effort to change behavior that is contributing to our marital problems" or "I'm not changing for you -- so take me as I am or get out!" or "This is not MY problem. I don't have a problem with my behavior. You don't like it? Then you've got a problem."

This pronouncement signals a near certain immobility in therapeutic progress.  The fact is, relationship problems are most often fueled by habits and miscommunication by both partners. For marriage therapy to work best, both partners need to be willing to make changes in the way they behave or react to each other's behavior. Both need to want the relationship to work enough to endure the temporary discomfort of changes in attitude, behavior or ways of thinking. Some stall out of fright, some out of anger and eventually come around to making some marriage-enhancing compromises. Those who take a stand and refuse to budge, however, are destined for rough times ahead -- either with conflicts recurring in an endless loop or with the loss of a partner who decides that he or she has had enough.

That's just the way I was raised: While it can be charming to hear that someone was raised to be gracious and thoughtful and giving, carrying on the emotional generosity of a parent or grandparent as a living legacy, that's not usually the context in which this phrase is uttered in therapy. When a therapist hears this, it is usually an excuse not to make a positive change or take responsibility for one's own world view.  Too often, it is an excuse for perpetuating some of the least desirable traits of parents -- an excuse for snobbery or racism or toxic pretensions or reactionary thinking.

Once you're in midlife or beyond, you have both experience and perspective. You have some wonderful opportunities to create the authentic, mature you. While you'll always be influenced by your past, you have a choice to sift through what seemed true back then and either embrace it or discard it. You have the opportunity to examine what makes sense in this time and place in your life.

My friend Pat, for example, has come to this point in her life embracing the Catholic faith of her childhood -- faith that meant so much to both her parents as she was growing up -- with greater fervor and joy than ever before -- while, at the same time, being comfortably at odds with her family of origin's political beliefs. She has created her own unique persona by building on what continues to be meaningful to her while questioning the rest.

While it's quite possible to be your own person and share many traits, interests and opinions with parents and other family members, making conscious choices in these areas instead of simply adopting familial inclinations by default can bring more satisfaction and joy to your life in these years.

It's my parents' fault because.... This is a tip-off that a person is not willing to own or take responsibility for behavior that is proving problematic in the present. Very few of us had childhoods that bore even scant resemblance to "Leave It To Beaver" or "Father Knows Best" or the Huxtables. Some of us had alcoholic, drug-abusing, child-bashing parents. Some of us suffered from neglect. Some of us felt the pain of being the non-preferred child in the family. Some of us were children of divorce. The list goes on.

The pain of the past can impact the present in many ways. Certainly, some of the major tasks of therapy include finding ways to soothe that early pain, to help resolve issues that still burn within and to help you move on to new possibilities. But when a therapist hears "It's my parents' fault because..." we're hearing that you don't want to -- or feel you can't -- change the trajectory of past pain to embrace a more promising future. It can be more comfortable, at least initially, to blame your parents' mistakes for all that ails you in the present. But even if they're still living and sorry for the misery of your childhood, they can't change what happened then or what will happen now.

While very few of our parents were ideal, very few were truly horrid, through and through. When we can allow ourselves to stop blaming our parents and to see the shades of gray and moments of happiness in our past as well, we're on the way to healing and growth.

One of the lovely aspects of adulthood is taking responsibility for your own life and taking the chance to re-invent yourself. Sometimes this means being mindful of a painful childhood when making adult choices. For example, I choose not to drink alcohol because I come from many generations of alcoholics. I know the havoc it can cause in one's life and I don't want to tempt my genetic fate. On the other hand, I cherish certain elements of my past -- my father's wonderful story-telling abilities and sense of humor, my mother's warmth -- and choose to emulate these positive aspects of the complicated people my parents were.

The fact is that taking a stand and not budging, never questioning early values or continuing to blame parents for present unhappiness all keeps you locked into behaviors and patterns that aren't working for you right now.

Taking the risk of change can feel scary, but it can bring new life to a troubled relationships and more energy, excitement and joy to your life than you ever imagined possible.

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Year's Wishes

There are years when it's hard to let go of the holidays, to put away the ornaments that bring warm memories, to take down the tree and sift through the pictures and sweet messages sent by friends from far away.

This has been one of those years. We didn't take our tree down until a week ago because the sight of it so delighted us. Bob and I thought -- for about two minutes -- about just leaving it up as a permanent decoration. But we soon rejected that idea. We don't need any more evidence of our eccentricity on display. And maybe making that glowing tree permanent would make it somehow less special. So we packed it away.

And we started talking about whether to make New Year's resolutions.

Bob decided resolutions were unnecessary this year. He is living his dreams: he is slim and fit, having lost 35 pounds over the past year and is running again on a daily basis for the first time in years. He is more active than ever with his music. He is taking a fascinating array of courses on tape, online and in person at our ASU extension center here. He is going to the movies weekly and to the library more often, with an impressive reading list. He is meditating daily, eating healthy food, practicing Tai Chi -- in short, doing everything he set out to do in retirement. He is absolutely delighted with how retirement has turned out.

                                       Bob jumping rope to warm up for gym workout

                                  Bob and friend Theo English making music    

                                         Bob meditating in Maui....

                                            ..... And with Maggie!        

                                Watching football - the big Alabama game -- with Gus

                               Studying neurological science on iPad with Maggie

                                            And relaxing with SweetPea     

Such a life!

I have to admit, I'm a bit behind Bob in all this. I weigh less than I did last January, but still have a way to go to reach a healthy weight. I'm exercising almost daily, but need to ramp it up a bit for maximum benefit. I'm writing again -- not only the blog, but also am working on some book proposals. I read a lot, meditate several times a week, am stumbling through the initial exercises of Tai Chi. I have fantasies of learning how to play the banjo and rediscovering Spanish. I'm eating healthy foods. So retirement is working well for me, too, but I have a way to go before I can catch up with Bob's healthy, active retirement lifestyle!

I've decided to skip the tyranny of specific resolutions in favor of ways I intend to pamper myself this year:

I want to take the risk of doing what I love.  I found inspiration for this recently when our neighbor Hank, a Superior Court judge by day, a heavy metal rocker by night, invited us to a nearby gig. It was wonderful to watch him singing and playing his guitar in a local dive called The River Bottom Bar and Grill. Bob and I discovered that the River Bottom, a place we had been too afraid to try for the past two years (so many bikers and just a stone's throw across the Gila River from the massive Arizona State Prison complex), was really quite delightful and had excellent hamburgers. But the greatest joy of the evening was Hank's inimitable musical performance. Following his dreams day and night, Hank is a great role model for living fully in midlife.

                         Judge by day, rocker by night: my neighbor Hank Gooday

My version of this might be writing more and tackling -- with joy and excitement -- two memoirs so long deferred.  It might also mean singing more often with Bob in the evenings, adding new songs and musical styles along the way. It might also include some self-pampering in the form of dance - however awkward, however basic in comparison to what I used to do, just because I love it.

I want to take time to cuddle and make warm contact with others.  This may mean reaching out more to Bob or to a friend who needs a hug. It may mean not walking past a cat who stretches out before me or who meows for attention. My cats, in fact, are a wonderful example of the art of cuddling:

                                   Gus and his late brother Timmy as cuddly kittens

                                    SweetPea and Maggie cuddling       

                          Bob getting a cuddle from Sweet Pea, Maggie and Gus                          

I want to savor the meaning of family. That means pampering myself with more contact not only with my brother Mike and sister Tai, but also with my dear sister-in-law Amp and also the next generation: Nick, now 22, and Maggie, 2 -- along with the new baby Mike and Amp are expecting this summer.  When we can't get together in person, I'm going to send more emails and make more Facetime visits and, if it comes to that, I'll even do some texting. I was so excited to get a text from Nick last week! Okay, I can do this. I'll follow my friend Sharon's example. She became an expert texter in order to stay in touch with her two busy adult children. And I want to be in touch more often, too, with my wonderful cousins and have another Cousins' Reunion soon! I'll give myself the gift of contact with them all -- in whatever ways work best.

                                 The next McCoy generation: Maggie, 2, and Nick, 22  

                           Wonderful cousins: Caron, George and Jack                     

I want to celebrate each day with good friends - both old and new. I don't want a day to go by this year when I don't rejoice in friendships. Some span much of my lifetime -- like Pat Hill, who has been my playmate from kindergarten to my young old age and Mary Breiner, so dear to me for more than forty years and so many others from various life stages -- from college friends like Tim Schellhardt and friends from various workplaces like Betty Price, Rita Warren, Michael Scavio and Nora Valdiviezo.

                            My lovely friend Mary Connolly Breiner and me - 1977                                   

                                 Dear college friend Tim Schellhardt and me in 2006

                    Betty Price and Rita Warren at 40th 'TEEN Magazine Reunion

                        My last boss Nora Valdiviezo and me celebrating retirement    

And I want to celebrate and thoroughly enjoy some of the new friends we've made in Arizona -- where neighbors have become a whole second family. Neighbors like:

                                 Wally Skurda, Phyllis Skurda and Larry Putrick

                                                Next door neighbor Louise Putrick

                               Bob and Larry with Pat and Joe Cosentino

And there are a number of others -- either camera shy or gone for the holidays -- not pictured but treasured daily! This coming year, I will pamper myself with memories and contacts with friends both old and new!                                                                           
 I want to create fun adventures -- whether traveling or at home.  Every day is full of opportunities for new discoveries and adventures! I plan to pamper myself by taking the time to notice and enjoy both planned and totally unexpected fun and enlightening moments. Bob and I want to discover more of Arizona and its fascinating history. I want to have some fun adventures in learning -- maybe picking up a musical instrument for the first time in my life. I have fantasies of learning to play Bob's banjo -- a tall order, I'm sure. But it's worth a try. And I want to enjoy memories of past adventures -- like our trip to visit my brother Mike and his wife Amp at their home in Bangkok for a the holidays a few years back. Every moment was a delightful adventure -- including our memorable visit to the restaurant Cabbages and Condoms (where condoms replace after dinner mints and profits go to family planning clinics throughout Thailand).

               Mike, Bob and me at Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant, Bangkok                                                                                                                        

I want to pay extra attention to health. That means healthy eating, careful flossing and daily exercise. It won't be a chore: I've come to prefer fresh fruits and vegetables to my old sugary treats. And the gym here has become a second home to me: wonderful exercise opportunities, fun socializing and all the best gossip -- all in one place!

                                       Our Sun City Gym - great place for daily workouts

                                       And a great place to socialize as well         

I want to find new ways to let special people in my life know how very much I care.  There are so many ways to communicate caring: the words we speak, the words we write, the time we take to notice, to listen, to try to understand another's point of view. I want to support family and friends I love -- as well as those in the blogosphere who have become dear to me -- in moments of challenge and pain, and moments of triumph. I want to empathize in rough times and celebrate the joyous times -- all the days of our lives in 2012!