Sunday, July 29, 2012

Inspiring Our Inner Olympians

There were many memorable moments in the spectacular Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics. But the one that lingers for me is the parade of nations at opening ceremony and the athletes from countries around the world. They came in many skin colors and physical sizes, but shared one essential quality: they were beautiful in their fitness and their youthful exuberance.

I was thrilled watching them. There is no way I could ever have been in their ranks. I've never been an athlete. I was always the last picked on our parochial school volleyball teams and had such a distinctive lack of ability, such an aversion to the ball, that schoolmates would wince and moan if I ended up on their teams. In high school, I was infamous for my gym excuses. I think I claimed to have my period for at least three-and-a-half years straight in order to avoid the dreaded gym classes.

Yet I loved to dance, studied for years, danced a bit professionally in musical theatre and recreationally for years after that. Though my enthusiasm far outweighed any natural talent,  I remember joy of movement, of testing the limits, and of delicious exhaustion. I remember, quite a few years back, that I once had a  slim body. Part of that, of course, was youth. But the rest was my regimen of dance classes and running five miles a day with my husband.

One of the few regrets I have in my life is allowing my exercise regimen to skid to a halt sometime around the age of forty. The rest is a sad history of yo-yo dieting and struggles with obesity. But, in the past two years, I have been in the process of reclaiming the joy of movement with daily gym work works, swimming and walking. I'm still overweight and look at least my age if not a bit older. But I feel immeasurably better.

An active adult/retirement community is an interesting place to watch the aging process in action -- and the stark differences between those who are truly active and those who aren't.

There are those who have never exercised and who are suffering the consequences in bad health, crippling arthritis and growing weakness.  But there are others who may have been active all their lives or who have come to it lately who are marvelous examples of the benefits of fitness.

There is Tom, lean, muscular, a serious hiker and an awesome gym fixture. He coaches other people in weight training. He is strong and fit, combining weight work with stretching and aerobics on the elliptical machine daily. Then, of course, he trains for long, strenuous mountain hikes by making five trips up and down a steep and treacherous local butte several times a week. Tom looks like an exceedingly fit 50 year old -- but is an astonishing 81 years old.

There is Theo, who never misses a spinning class, bikes several miles a day, works out at the gym, swims and is an amazing tap dancer. With his tall, lean body, he could pass for a man in his forties. No one would ever guess that Theo is 73.

My husband Bob is another inspiration. He was my running partner when we were in our thirties, but he never stopped exercising. He runs 3-5 miles a day out in the desert and then hits the gym with fast jump roping, weights and more running on the treadmill. He is very slim, muscular and in amazing shape for any age, let alone 68, and has the vigor of a man many years younger.

I see many fit women as well, but one of the most impressive is someone who discovered the joy of exercise relatively late in life.

Irene is 50 and when I met her three years ago -- in July 2009 when we were visitors to this community -- she was markedly obese. We met in the pool where she was talking with friends about her new resolution to get slim and fit. Jaded by my own struggles, I thought "Yeah, right!" as she talked about her plans. But she actually did it. Coached by Tom, she changed her diet and worked out daily at the gym. About six months ago, she finally got down to 128, looking wonderful and challenging Bob to a push-ups competition.

Even those who aren't gym regulars can enjoy the benefits of exercise.

I remember, some years ago, asking my Aunt Evelyn, who was then 76, if she had any arthritis pain. She smiled. "I've discovered something interesting," she said. "As long as I walk my three miles a day, I'm fine. But if I skip a day or two, I hurt so much, I can hardly get out of my chair. So keeping active keeps me ahead of my arthritic pain. If I were to give in to it, I really would be a granny stuck in her rocking chair!"

Keeping active, then, can help many of us to maintain our health and vigor well into old age. It can, in so many ways, be lifesaving.

My friend Tim, who hasn't exercised regularly, is planning a new regimen. Part of his motivation is the realization that he is one year past the age when his father and grandfather died of heart attacks and part of it has been the shock of seeing the huge list of deceased college classmates on our 45th reunion website. Still working a demanding and stressful job, Tim recently moved from the suburbs to a downtown Chicago condo. He is walking to work, starting to use the gym in his condo building and is taking up bicycling. As we make plans to attend our 45th class reunion in October, Tim and I have made a vow not to land on that dreaded class In Memoriam page anytime soon.

There are no guarantees, of course. No amount of gym time will make us look like those young, elite athletes. And no amount of exercise will keep us off the In Memoriam list forever. But enlisting our own inner Olympians to integrate exercise and activity into the routines of our lives can help to increase the quality of our days, adding immeasurably to the joy and vigor of the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Moments That Linger in Our Hearts

The memory came back to me when I was reading Fiftyodd's blog post yesterday about television not coming to South Africa until 1976 and what a sensation "Dallas" was there -- to the extent that restaurants would close early on Tuesdays because everyone was home watching "Dallas."

And it made me think about the early days of television here in the U.S. and the impact this had on our generation.

Baby Boomers were the first children in this country to grow up with television. Our collective memories of early children's shows, coming of age comedies and history unfolding before our eyes have unified us in a unique way. And, at the same time, there are television moments burned into our individual memories that go way beyond the t.v. screen and into our own emotional history.

My first memorable television moment came a little over 63 years ago.

It was April, 1949 and I was about to celebrate my fourth birthday. My father had built a rudimentary television set from a kit and it was the talk of the neighborhood. Neighbors would come over to admire it and watch the limited programming with wonder.

But one early Friday evening, the whole neighborhood was camped in our living room. Curious, I wandered in and, on the tiny screen, saw a news reporter named Stan Chambers standing in front of some drilling equipment, crews of workers and dozens of spectators held back by ropes. Lights lent by movie studios illuminated the scene.

We were watching the first ever around-the-clock live news telecast, covering the 52 hour rescue effort to extract three year old Kathy Fiscus from an old, rusty, incredibly narrow well.  The uncapped well's opening was covered with tall grass. She fell in while scampering across an open field in San Marino, CA with her older sister Barbara and cousin Gus. The other children heard her crying and screaming at the bottom of the well and ran for help. Ironically, Kathy's father worked for the Department of Water and Power and had recently testified in public hearings about the danger of old, uncapped wells.

Crews set to work immediately, digging a parallel shaft to lower rescuers down to the point that they could get access to the old well. The entire event was covered by a local Los Angeles station KTLA, with Stan Chambers, a young reporter at the time, providing much of the commentary and news on the rescue's progress.

The coverage lasted all night, all the next day and night and into Sunday. Through it all, neighbors brought potluck meals and bedding. We slept in shifts. We ate all our meals in front of the television. The crowd in our living room grew as time went on. We squeezed in together, riveted by the drama unfolding and united in hope.

Often during this time, I could feel my mother's arms around me, holding me tight and safe. "Kathy Fiscus is just about your age," she whispered to me. "She will be four in August. She's a little girl who is as precious to her mother as you are to me. And she is bringing us all together to pray and hope."

And so we all watched and prayed and hoped. But it was not enough. On Sunday, rescuers brought Kathy's body to the surface. She had died from a lack of oxygen shortly after her fall into the well on a Friday evening. On-screen, Stan Chambers, the exhausted young reporter who was destined to become a television icon during his six decade news career at KTLA, fought tears. Sobs were audible on-screen and off as workers and spectators alike mourned the tragic death of this precious child.

And Kathy went on to become a legend -- the subject of a song that topped the charts in 1949. The news coverage of the frantic attempts to rescue her is still a milestone in television news, predating the news coverage that brought us together again in 1963 with the assassination of President Kennedy, the 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the triumph of the 1969 moon landings and, of course, the coverage of the horror of 9/11.

But the tragedy of Kathy Fiscus is burned into my memory.

It was the first time I realized that not all stories have happy endings.

It was my first inkling that hard work and good intentions don't always have the desired results.

It taught me that some prayers seem to go unanswered.

It was the first time I knew that terrible things could happen to much-loved little girls.

And it was the first time I had ever seen adults -- both on the television screen and sitting beside me -- break down and cry.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spousal Punishment

It was a casual question, but Frank's tone was wistful: "Are you guys going on the Canyon Lake trip?"

We nodded and told him that, yes, we were going to be joining about 50 neighbors on a bus trip to Canyon Lake for a paddle boat ride and lunch later this week. We asked if he and his wife Barbara were going as well.

He shook his head. "I'd love to go," he said. "But Barbara doesn't want to go. And she doesn't want to be left alone. And so...." He trailed off with a shrug.

And he asked me, once again, if I ever planned to get licensed as a therapist in Arizona. I told him, once again, that while I was keeping my California license and malpractice insurance to do occasional phone follow-ups or emergency sessions with a few long-time clients in Los Angeles, I had no plans to practice in Arizona.

I thought -- but didn't say -- that even if I were to see patients here, Barbara would be a nightmare to treat. Yes, she is depressed and anxious and I have a lot of experience treating those conditions. But I also know that Barbara is determined not to feel better, not to give up one iota of the misery she feels and makes quite clear to everyone in this community. Her continual unhappiness is a weapon in the daily punishment of her husband for his role in deciding to pull up stakes in Seattle and move to Arizona several years ago.

Actually, the decision to move was mutual. But they had very different motives. Barbara imagined being close and involved on a daily basis with their newly married thirty-something daughter, their only child, who has been living and working in Phoenix for some years. Frank envisioned a relaxed retirement with time to play, to go on little trips, to get in shape for the first time ever and to enjoy this new phase of their lives with nearly non-stop sunshine.

Reality has been harsh for both.

Their daughter, while glad to see them perhaps once or twice a month, is busy with her career and new marriage. The young couple loves to travel, to socialize with friends, to relax in each other's company during time not claimed by their busy careers and her part-time evening classes for an MBA.  Barbara hates her son-in-law and complains that she had expected she would enjoy long, fun weekends with her daughter, but "he monopolizes all of her free time!" Overcome with anger and disappointment, Barbara went on an emotional strike against her husband "for dragging me to this god-forsaken place!"

And so she boycotts most of the fun events or activities here and demands that he do the same. Her depression and anger rule their life together. And she refuses to be helped -- even when he drives her to yet another psychologist or psychiatrist.

Frank's long-awaited relaxing, fun retirement has become a stressful round of doctors' appointments and emotional stand-offs over fun he would like to have.

Barbara has made it abundantly clear that there is no way she will ever experience a moment of joy -- or allow Frank to -- until they are back in Seattle.

Frank and Barbara are infamous in this community, but, of course, there are countless other couples world-wide who struggle with tension, distress and regret.

Spousal punishment can be inspired by and cause misery for a variety of reasons.  As a therapist, I've  seen spouses punish the other for a long ago or more recent transgression: an infidelity, a lost investment, a wayward child, a business that went under or a career that never quite blossomed. But much of the spousal punishment I've seen lately has come in the wake of a relocation.

Living with such tension is hazardous to health, life and the pursuit of happiness. It takes two, of course, to perform this malevolent marital dance: the outraged punisher and the partner who feels guilty or otherwise deserving of punishment. It can be a relationship pattern that persists for years if the relationship survives.

What can you do to stop the cycle of marital punishment before it erodes whatever love and goodwill you ever had for each other?

1. Seek marriage counseling:  When you're locked into a non-productive pattern of punishment, anger and guilt, it can be a downward spiral. Seeking help from a professional may enable you to stop that spiral and negotiate a peace settlement, especially when it's difficult or impossible to achieve an emotional cease-fire on your own.

2.  If the trigger for the anger and punishment is long past, if the behavior hasn't been repeated, or the event can't be undone, consider dropping the matter. Air your unhappiness and conflict, possibly with the help of a therapist, come to a mutual resolution and then agree to drop it! To do less is to condemn both spouses to a life of misery. Hurtful things happen in a marriage. If you hang onto the hurt and punish your spouse for years after the incident or decision, there is no end to the unhappiness. If, on the other hand, you can forgive the other, express regret that this happened and agree to move on, the marital prognosis improves considerably.

3. If a decision begins to look like a mistake, stop the blame and start working together to resolve the problem. When faced with a crisis, it is much more productive to start working together to resolve the issues instead of blaming and punishing each other.

Another couple here, who also moved from a very high priced city where they could never have afforded to buy a home, found that even though they were able to buy a lovely home here, resentments festered initially. She missed her family and friends. He was disappointed when she reneged on her promise to keep working (there is a substantial age difference between the spouses and she's in her early forties). They found themselves snapping at each other until recently when, after a health scare, they realized anew how much they love each other. They stopped the blame and decided to work together to resolve their difficulties. She has devoted herself to learning to cook a whole new way to address his health issues and working with him at the gym to help increase his level of fitness. He has found that he misses work and was happy to find a job nearby that makes him feel newly connected and that also eases the financial strain of their mortgage. Finding peace together has made them more open to settling in and making friends here. The change is quite evident as they reach out to others, smile more and find joy in their surroundings.

Yet another couple we know moved here from a lovely community in the hills of Tucson, hoping to find a more economical lifestyle without skimping on amenities. Over time, they found that, for them, cheap was expensive: yes, the homes here were more affordable, but they missed their old neighborhood terribly. So after a year and a half of his unhappiness and her trying to like it here, they finally agreed that the only solution was to go back. They sold their home here and moved back to the old neighborhood, finding a home for a bargain price. It was simply meant to be. They've rediscovered their joy in being in a cooler mountain climate, with an array of sports opportunities not available here. And they're feeling closer than ever -- having shared a less than optimal adventure here and re-discovering their appreciation for their long-time home town.

4. Realize that there is little that can't be changed, but that a change of attitude may work better than a change of venue. One younger couple we know, Jake and Jennifer, who live on the all ages side of this community with their two young children, have spent the past 10 years moving in search of stable job opportunities. While they loved their last home in Wisconsin and hoped to set down roots there, the lack of employment put them on the road again to Florence, AZ where Jake was offered an excellent state job with benefits and a pension. Jennifer subsequently found a teaching position at a local school. Their only problem, on arrival, was with Florence. The heat. The dust. The remote location. It all added up to an initial funk for Jennifer who missed the greenery of Wisconsin and Jake who missed the blue expanse of Lake Michigan. "But then we decided to count our blessings," Jennifer told me recently. "We both have jobs we enjoy and our income feels secure at last. And this is a beautiful community -- even if the surrounding area can look a little bleak. Actually, I'm re-casting that from 'bleak' to 'stark beauty'. And we love our nice, big, affordable house. So we're truly blessed and are finding that keeping open minds and hearts has made this move a happy one at last."  It was their decision to be happy here -- not necessarily the place itself -- that made the critical difference.

5. Realize that when you punish your spouse, you also punish yourself and others close to you. I have a dear friend who received a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity that would require a family move from Pittsburgh to New York. His wife was vigorously against the move, even though they would not be leaving family, close friends or her career (since they were planning to start a family and she wanted to be a stay at home mom).  After a lot of discussion and soul-searching, he accepted the position and insisted on the move -- and she never forgave him.

Even though his increasingly successful career made it easier for her to stay home with the children and provided a nice lifestyle for them, she continued to be angry. Finally, after nearly a decade of professional triumphs but personal misery, my friend arranged with his employer to step down from his dream job and return to a less exciting one back in Pittsburgh, hoping that this move back would mollify his wife. But her fury persisted. As the years went on and punishment continued, the love and friendship of their early days as a couple eroded completely. Finally, he had enough and moved out of the house after more than 40 years of marriage.

Their children express love for both parents and sadness for their marital ordeal. Perhaps not surprisingly, the children have not been in a rush to marry, generally waiting until they were over 30 and established in their careers before heading for the altar. Although the husband is one of my dearest friends and so I have heard (and greatly sympathized with) his side of the story over the years, I can't imagine that life has been easy for his wife. Their unhappiness together for so many years has to have taken a toll on her health and life satisfaction as well.

6. Rediscover each other as best friends and true partners.  When things go wrong and people start to blame and punish each other, it's easy to forget what your relationship has meant and what the commitment of marriage means.  Bob and I discovered this when, during a rough patch early in our own marriage, we sought help from a wonderful psychologist named Bruce Ludmir.  Dr. Ludmir gazed quietly at us as we sulked in our respective corners of the room. "Haven't you forgotten something?" he asked. "Haven't you forgotten that you promised to be there for each other? To be partners? To be best friends?"

His question touched our aching hearts and we resolved to work on our differences, to heal our hurt, together. It is a decision that has made a critical difference in our marriage and our lives since.

Where there is love and a willingness to work together, so much is possible. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Past...By Surprise

Rushing through the supermarket here in rural Arizona this afternoon, I skidded to a halt and stared at a small display in a basket in the fresh fruit department: lychee nuts! I couldn't believe it. My favorite delicacies of my youth -- hard to find even in Los Angeles -- were sitting in a basket here in Florence, Arizona!


Bob stared open-mouthed, too. He has hunted for the elusive fresh lychee many times -- and often in vain -- both in stores in L.A. and online after we moved here as a special surprise for me.

"Stock up," he said with a smile. "Let them know someone here really loves fresh lychees."

My love of fresh lychees -- canned just aren't the same -- has roots that extend back a century.

My father's father -- the grandfather I never knew because he died when my father was only eight years old -- had lived in China for a time, spoke fluent Mandarin and, as an attorney, did a lot of work on behalf of Chinese immigrants in Tucson. His son, my father, would sometimes accompany him on his rounds and grateful clients would give them a rare treat -- fresh lychee nuts -- during the brief growing season. The fruits were shipped from China to the Port of Los Angeles and then transported to Tucson. The treats were too sparse, too rare, to be sold in markets. They were passed, with great celebration, from one friend to another. One of my father's fondest memories from his all-too-brief childhood was sharing a precious stash of lychee nuts with his father.

And so, after coming of age near the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, my father had his contacts. And when the brief lychee season came each summer, he would get a call from his childhood friend Kwan Lee Leong who owned the main grocery store in Chinatown. The lychees had arrived! We would rush down there, go in a side door and buy the precious stash. Then we would go home, sit on the back porch and eat them, the sweet juices running down our chins. (Lychees have a tough outer shell that you crack and peel to reveal a sweet, nearly translucent, grape-like fruit within. The taste is wonderfully subtle.)


And my father would tell me stories about when he was a little boy and how much he had loved his father and how much he missed him. And how much the warm memories flooded back whenever he bit into a lychee and felt the infusion of cool sweetness on his tongue.

And so lychees have come to evoke certain times of my own childhood, those rare, sweet times of calm and companionship with a father who was so frightfully unpredictable.

Once, when I was fourteen, a diagnostic test of my brain went horribly wrong when I had an allergic reaction to the general anesthetic. What was to have been an overnight hospital stay stretched to a week as I lay unconscious, aware of others around me, but unable to respond much of the time. Finally, I heard myself speaking tentatively as my father leaned over me, holding my hand and stroking my head tenderly. "Lychee nuts," I whispered. "Would it be permissible to have lychee nuts?"

"Oh, my baby," my father choked, with a half-sob. "Of course it's permissible. They may be dried this time of year, but I will get you some lychees right away. Just hang on!"

And soon he was pressing lychees dried in their shells into my palm and my hand closed around his. And I knew then, with a rush of emotion, just how much this difficult, conflicted man loved me.

Sightings of lychees in my adulthood and into my young old age bring moments of incredible joy. My first hint of lychees this year was when I was visiting my brother Mike and sister-in-law Amp in Los Angeles and was at a local Costco with Amp. She was hunting for strawberries, found some and then, on impulse, reached for another clear container. It was filled with lychees! Instant ecstasy! I became a child again, clapping my hands with glee. Laughing with me about my sudden exuberance, Amp put another two cartons of the fruit into the shopping cart. I ended up taking those, packed in ice, back home to Arizona where I stretched this treat out over two glorious weeks. I thought that was my lychee experience for the year.

But then today -- an incredible find. Right here in the middle of nowhere, in my local supermarket: my past and my present in a delicious collision.

Do you have special food treats from childhood that delight you?

Are there items that take you back years and evoke wonderful feelings and memories?

As I savor this unexpected bounty today, the past floods back in a rush of warm memories: a loving father and sweet, vulnerable son sharing this precious gift that was given with love and gratitude by my grandfather's Chinese clients and, years later, a little girl sitting close to her vulnerable, wounded father happily sharing the rare, sweet treat of fresh lychees -- and an equally rare moment of harmony, joy and love.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Memorable Moments

Think of some of the major milestones of your life, some of the big moments, and then think about which times -- major or not -- stand out among your happy memories.

How many of these sweet memories are connected to milestones -- and which came quietly and unexpectedly into your life?

In my own life, I've found that times I had anticipated as major were unexpectedly humbling, with reality bringing me firmly back to earth.

I'm thinking of the times when life and possibilities seemed incredibly full and endless, when I had the thought "This is a time I'll always remember. This is it! I've really made it!" and reality was sitting there just waiting....

Reality was waiting when, as a young professional actress, I was cast in the West Coast premiere of Lanford Wilson's "This Is the Rill Speaking." In this show, the six of us played multiple roles -- with no costume or makeup changes -- and were hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "a distinguished ensemble of actors who interface in and out of multiple roles with diamond brilliance."

But our alleged brilliance eluded many audience members of this theatre subscription series. There were testy mutterings during the show and subdued applause. And one evening, just as the show was ending  with each of our multiple characters saying "Good night!", one frustrated patron -- a large older man -- stood up at his seat and roared "Good night, for God's sake! When will this end???" And then he turned and ran up the aisle and out of the theatre. I had the distinct impression that at least half the audience longed to follow him.

Reality was waiting some years later on a particularly heady day during a busy national tour promoting one of my books. The day started in New York with what was a throughly enjoyable stint on "The Today Show." The only problem was, my schedule called for me next to be live on the air at noon in Sarasota, Florida.

A publicity aide and I dashed from the set of  "The Today Show" to a waiting limo and barely made it to the airport for the flight to Tampa. Once we landed, we were met by another publicist and publicity escort, frantic to get to Sarasota on time. As we dashed out of the airport, I suddenly realized I hadn't used the bathroom since before going on camera on "Today." I told them I needed to pee. There was a collective sigh. "Well, hurry up!" the escort said crossly. "We'll pull the car up to the curb and you meet us there." So I did and they did and we reached the t.v. station in Sarasota five minutes before air time.

"Get out of the car and go in that door!" one of the aides said. "We'll follow you."

But just as I was opening the door, I heard the aides shout "Wait!!" in unison and run up behind me with an explosion of laughter. After using the bathroom in Tampa Airport, I had pulled my pantyhose over the back of my dress and was flashing everyone behind me. Any fantasies I might of had of my own stardom, complete with publicity entourage, vanished as I pulled my skirt out my pantyhose -- while the host of the show, who had rushed to the door to greet me, looked on.

And reality was definitely waiting the first time I appeared on OPRAH in early 1988.  She was doing a show around "The Teenage Body Book" and had asked that my co-author -- my friend Chuck Wibbelsman, who is an M.D. -- appear on the show. She wasn't interested in me because I was "just" the writer. At that point, I was working on but was still a few years away from completing my doctorate.

Chuck, bless his heart, begged the producer to consider having me on the show as well. "Kathy and I are a team," he insisted. "I know you'll agree if you just talk to her."  And so the producer did -- and did agree to bring me on as well.

It was a moment of triumph: here we were, on the set of OPRAH, all miked up and ready to go on a show that was truly the Holy Grail to writers looking to promote their books. In those days, the show was live and Oprah didn't meet with non-celebrity guests before the show. She walked onto the set as the countdown to air time as going.....10, 9, 8.....

"Hello, doctor," she said warmly, shaking Chuck's hand. Then she saw me and her eyes narrowed....


"What is SHE doing here?" she yelled. "I just wanted the doctor!"

3,2,1...The cameras blinked on and the show began.

Oprah was and is the best at what she does. When we went live, she sparkled. She was smart. She was charming. I had to admit, as unsettled as I had been by her greeting, that on camera she was absolutely great, the best.  And the exposure -- one couldn't ask for more.

All our mikes were off as the closing music played and the credits ran over the visual of Oprah thanking us for doing the show. She came up to Chuck, took his hands in both of hers and said "Thank you so much, doctor! I really appreciate your being here and all the good things you had to say." She turned to me with a dazzling smile, clasping my hands warmly in her own and leaned into me. "When the music stops, get off the stage," she said. "I've got to shoot promos."

Chuck and I left the studio in shock. "It's like finding out there is no Santa," he said sadly. "Here I thought she would be so nice!"

Oprah was much nicer when I guested on the show again several years later, promoting a book I had written by myself. The show was now taped, removing the stress of live television, and inviting me back had been her idea. So the experience was much more pleasant.

But my expectations were different, too. I didn't expect her to be nice at all, so when she was relatively congenial, I was delighted.

Still, when I think about life's most pleasurable moments, they were almost never those big experiences, the times when I expected so much and found the experience humbling or underwhelming.

When I think back over my life and the true emotional highs, they tend to be simple moments. Moments like:
  • being lithe and thirty something and running for miles in Griffith Park with a cool breeze in my face
  • lovely evenings early in my relationship with Bob when we introduced each other to our favorite music, talked and told stories into the night
  • Sunday brunch and art gallery walking tours of Laguna Beach
  • wonderful, day-long conversations with dear friends like Mary or Steve and Sharon or Nancy and Jerry or Tim -- both long ago and recently
  • ongoing great conversations with my brother Mike, my sister Tai, my husband Bob and friends here in Arizona
  • embracing Aunt Molly as we waded into the surf one last time and all the memories of romping in the waves with her during my growing up years
  • the softness and sweet scent of a tiny kitten -- Freddie, some 30 years ago and later on, very special kittens named Timmy, Gus, Maggie, Sweet Pea and, most recently, our wonderful Hamish
  • the lovely feel of a small child on my lap, eager for a story -- most recently, my niece Maggie, who bonded with me over our shared delight at her incomparable story book about hippos.
  • the joy of connection -- with an old friend or a new friend -- in person or online
  • sharing laughter with someone dear -- especially my husband Bob as we re-visit private jokes and old punchlines
  • the delicious feeling of that first weekday after we retired as Bob and I lingered over coffee in our new Arizona home
  • waking up to a bright, beautiful morning and feeling grateful for another day
What are the emotional high points of your life? Were there times you thought would be great, but weren't -- and times when joy caught you by surprise?

If you're like me, these moments of unexpected joy were often simple, ordinary moments, situations with no particular expectations, moments that had nothing to do with professional achievement and everything to do with mindfulness, peace and love shared.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Joy of Reconnecting

The voice on the phone was faintly familiar, but a name eluded me until she told me that hers was a voice from the past and her name was Kathy Lake.

She told me that a close friend had died recently and she realized that no one else could fill that void in her life.  She began to think about how each dear friend is irreplaceable and then about several other much loved friends with whom she had lost contact through the years. I was one of them. She set out to find me.

I was so happy to be found. I settled in for a good conversation as memories of my friendship with Kathy warmed my heart.

It wasn't just that I loved to swap stories and laugh with her or that we had both gone back to graduate school in middle age while working full time and were quick to commiserate with each other. It wasn't just that I thoroughly enjoyed her company. I also remembered how once she had come to my defense and stood by me when it seemed no one else would.

Kathy was my assistant for several years during an usually difficult time in a workplace that, largely speaking, was an 8-year-long dark night of the soul for me.

At one juncture, five years into my tenure there,  a mentally disturbed temporary worker in our department launched a campaign of outrageous lies and rumors about me that roiled around the workplace, undermining my position and my relationships with co-workers. Initially, only Kathy stood by me. Only Kathy had the courage to stand up and speak the truth. She alerted the Dean of our department, my immediate boss, convincing him that the spreading rumors were completely untrue and eliciting his vigorous support of me. She compiled exhaustive documentation of the malicious lies and intervened with the HR director who, without notifying or questioning me, was about to initiate harsh disciplinary actions.

Further investigation found that this temporary worker had exhibited such behavior at other companies where she had worked. In one instance, her lies and taunts prompted one of her previous targets to lash out and strike her. Claiming injury and trauma, this temp worker had ended up with a good sum of money -- enough to buy her own home -- from a subsequent lawsuit against the company.

The crisis in our workplace blew over and the temp was let go. But the pain lingered -- in my own hurt and in some relationships that would never be the same. Kathy was unfailingly supportive and saw me through that particularly dark time. I've never forgotten her kindness and courage.

But then, during a re-organization crisis at work, Kathy and her life partner Sue decided to make long deferred move to Seattle. Kathy was suddenly gone and, sadly, we lost touch. I have thought of her so many times over the years.

Hearing her voice on the phone made my day. How wonderful it is to rediscover a warm connection with a friend who has meant so much.

Reconnecting with people who are important to us is a great gift, whether we have been separated by years, by hurt feelings, by private sorrows or simply by the distractions and demands of daily life.

What a pleasure it is to rediscover joy with a college friend who is just now emerging from a painful 45 year marriage that sapped his energy and spirit during recent years.  Now he is living much as he did as a student -- one room apartment, no car, tight budget. And he's happy -- with a gentle breeze wafting through the open windows of his apartment, walking to work in a city he loves, bicycling along the lakefront. He has little -- and he has everything. Freedom from pain means so very much to him. Though we've been close friends throughout the years, it's wonderful to see his joyous spirit emerge once more and to reconnect with that wonderful aspect of him.

What a pleasure it is to have a good conversation with my brother Mike, with my sister Tai, with my sister-in-law Amp or my dear friend Mary and to reconnect anew, discovering new insights from old and dear relationships.

And what a great, sweet surprise it is to share a lunch with neighbors who have moved away, as Bob and I did yesterday, and to reconnect with these good friends. And how good for the soul it is to share yet another lunch with another couple who are dear neighbors and who are planning to move away. But they are serious about wanting to keep in touch.

It makes one want to launch a celebration of reconnection: to write a note, send an email, make a phone call to someone special we have missed.

Kathy Lake sent me an email recently that said "Now that I've reconnected, I find I really miss you!" So true. She's planning a visit in the fall.

What reconnections would you like to make? What notes have you been meaning to write? What phone calls do you need to make? Which friends from your past would you like to rediscover through Facebook or an email or a well-timed text message?

Don't wait.

You may make someone's day.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lessons from Nora Ephron

The news of her passing was shocking and sad. For Nora Ephron was always such a strong, witty and spot-on chronicler of her generation and the human condition. It's hard to believe that there will be no more books or articles or films.

I have admired her work for decades and, in 1975, our paths crossed briefly when she was on a publicity tour for her book "Crazy Salad".  I was one of a number of writers and reporters set to talk with her during a marathon day of interviews at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

She was a delight. Our lunchtime interview was filled with stories and laughter and shared observations about being young women in the mid-Seventies. This was when she was married to Carl Bernstein whose reporting, with Bob Woodward, had sparked Watergate. I asked her if she had ever tried to coax him to reveal the identity of Deep Throat.

She laughed. "All the time, in every possible circumstance," she said. And she went on to tell me that she had always disliked Washington, both when she was an intern at the Kennedy White House (in her perception, she may have been the only intern whom JFK didn't proposition) and then during her marriage to Carl Bernstein. "Washington isn't a good place to be a person in, let alone a woman," she said, declaring that New York was her true home, despite the fact that she had grown up in Beverly Hills, the daughter of well-known screenwriters.

I loved her candor and humor and spirit. And, although I never saw her in person again, I continued to enjoy her work and learn important life lessons from Nora Ephron through the years. Generally, these weren't new revelations.  But somehow the way Nora wrote and lived gave extra zest and emphasis to these life lessons:

1. The importance of embracing change instead of fearing it.  In a graduation speech not long ago, she told those assembled not to fear change, that changes even if initially painful can bring a wealth of new experiences. "I've had four careers and three husbands," she told the laughing audience. But her life has been instructive. In her careers, she took risks, tapping all of her abundant talent as a writer, a reporter, a screenwriter, a film director. Personally, even when life was painful, she was never the victim. She admonished the young women in that graduation class to "be the heroine in your own life, not ever a victim."

2. The treasure of authenticity. She was an original. She spoke her mind. She had little patience with cliches and bromides about aging. In her 2006 book "I Feel Bad About My Neck" she clearly stated her feelings when reading a book about how wonderful old age is and how great it is to be wise, sage and mellow and to understand what matters in life. "I can't stand people who say things like this," she wrote. "What can they be thinking? Don't they have necks?" Her observations of aging in this and her last book "I Remember Nothing And Other Observations" are a combination of witty protest about the ravages of time, the anticipated limitations of the future, stark evidence of mortality in the deaths of dear friends and gentle, deeply sad reflections beneath the humor. At the time her last book was published two years ago, only those closest to her knew that she was suffering from leukemia. So she continued to be defined by her singular and authentic wit, not by her illness. And so often she said the things many of us were thinking, but didn't have the courage to say out loud.

3. The positive power of connection. She was, by all reports, an enthusiastic, loving and loyal friend to an amazing array of people -- some famous, most not. She showed up, paid attention, participated in their lives, in good times and difficult times. Although numerous studies have found that warm connections can benefit both physical and psychological health, her living example was a true inspiration. For those of us who, too often, have used excuses about increasing workloads or being busy with the kids or going through a rough time and preferring solitude when we have neglected our friends, seeing someone like Nora Ephron who balanced her busy life as a writer/filmmaker and mother and wife to make room for cherished friends is instructive.

4. Viewing the past as an inspiration or motivation, not an excuse. Although Nora grew up in Beverly Hills, the daughter of successful screenwriters, life was not easy. Alcoholism plagued her family as it did mine. But she learned from her parents, both professionally and personally, taking in what was healthy and beneficial and keeping a distance from the ugliness of alcoholism. In her last book, reviewing her life, she admitted the pain and confusion of being a child of alcoholics, reflecting on the fact that one loves the parent, but hates the drunk; that these are people you grew up idolizing, but it's increasing difficult to see them as anything but monsters; that they once had power over you and now they have no power at all.  Despite the pain of her past, she never saw herself as a victim, never made excuses. She learned a great deal from her parents' flaws about how she didn't want to live her life.  And she moved on to create a very different life for herself.

5. The importance of celebrating the major and the small pleasures of life on a daily basis. Her last book ends with a list of what she would miss most upon leaving this life.  Her children and husband topped the list. But waffles, walks in the park, fireworks, reading in bed, a dinner for two at home, Paris, Christmas trees, Thanksgiving dinner, taking a bath, coming over the bridge to Manhattan and pie are right up there. It makes one think: what would my list be? And how many of those people and things and experiences can I savor right now, today?

Another item on Nora Ephron's list of favorites was late June "when it doesn't get dark until after 9:30 at night and you feel you're going to live forever!" She left this life the last week of June -- and, indeed, will live forever in the memories of those of us who enjoyed her articles, books and films and learned important life lessons even as we laughed along with her.