Sunday, June 30, 2013

Happy First Birthday, Sweet Henry!

Could it truly have been a year ago when since my sweet nephew's tumultuous entrance into the world?

It has become something of a family legend: his mother Amp went into sudden, hard labor at 5 p.m. on a busy Friday night in West Los Angeles. The drive to the hospital in cross town rush hour traffic was tortuous. A medical team awaited her arrival in the hospital parking lot. But Henry bided his time, not making an appearance until nearly 3 a.m. on June 30, 2012. That was the last time he caused any family tumult.

                                         Newborn Henry with sister Maggie, 3    

                         Baby Henry with his Dad and (camera-shy) Mom Amp

It would be hard to find a more charming, agreeable, good-natured child. He is affable and outgoing. He never has tantrums -- even during grueling 17 hour flights back and forth between his family's homes in Bangkok and Los Angeles. His father started a new job in Thailand last fall and since then, the family has lived in a high rise condo in the heart of the city, visiting Los Angeles only occasionally.

Wherever in the world he finds himself, Henry goes with the flow, enjoying cloud gazing with his loving Dad from the time he was only two months old, smiling when his mother sings to him or when his father reads him a story. He loves exploring, seeing new places, meeting new people. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, he strolled around a mall play area, greeting and shaking hands with all the watchful and astonished mothers of other toddlers there.

                                               Mike and son Henry at two months

He regards his bright, beautiful but more tightly-wound sister Maggie with amusement, laughing when she has a tantrum. But, more often, he looks up to her, trailing her wherever she goes, wanting to be as strong and competent as she is. And so he walked -- and ran -- by the time he was 7 months old.

                               Henry and Maggie, jetlagged on arrival in Bangkok

                               Henry with Maggie on the way to school in Bangkok

                                                   Henry on the run in Bangkok

                                         Enjoying a mall play area in Los Angeles

  Henry's developmental landmarks -- like stranger anxiety -- are fleeting and low key. Instead of hiding from or crying at the sight of a stranger, Henry stares them down, sizes them up and then welcomes them to his world.

                                Henry, 9 months, in stranger stare-down mode

                                          Henry cuddling with his Dad

He is growing up on two continents, two very different worlds, bi-lingual and bi-cultural, on the cutting edge of a new global future. But he is surrounded by love: from Amp, his Thai mother, and her lively young family in Thailand and Mike, his Irish-American father and his extended older family here in the U.S. who all love both Henry and Maggie and wish them the best in a future we can barely imagine.

What kind of man will this toddler become? What lies in his future? Will he build a life story entirely his own, woven from the family experiences, traditions, sentiments and beliefs of two distinct cultures? Will his life have faint echoes, perhaps only in family stories of other times, of his father's growing years? How long into this century will we be able to follow Henry and Maggie until they head into a future that only they will share? 

Who are you becoming, sweet Henry?

He's mum on future plans, living happily in the moment -- the only time, after all, that any of us really have. And that moment, today, is his first birthday. Happy Birthday, Henry! May your days be many and joyous!

                   Henry, one year old today, and ready to take on the world!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Glancing through my Yahoo email Inbox last week, I was stunned to see some familiar but long-out-of-touch names. Then I noticed that these messages were all regarding the same subject: my Yahoo email account had been hacked and a "How are you?" message with an attachment was sent to everyone to whom I had ever sent an email from that account.

The bad news was that I had been hacked. Yahoo was taking care of it and asked me to change my password. I sent replies back to those friends and former co-workers and even to a man in Hawaii whose home Bob and I plan to rent for a week next year, apologizing for the inconvenience and cautioning them not to open the attachment in the bogus email.

But there was a positive side to an otherwise frustrating experience: among these varied replies to the spam email sent under my name, there were messages from friends and long-ago acquaintances that gave me pause and made me sad that there were dear people whom I have not contacted in a very long time.

There was the message from a former boss, telling me that she misses hearing from me, and another former boss from a job I held through most of the Nineties also saying he would love to hear from me more often -- and cautioning me that the attachment in the spam email was to a porn site.

There was a message from my dear friend Sister Ramona, telling me that she was having trouble opening the attachment -- and I was so relieved -- and hastened to warn her to stop trying and just delete everything. And I remembered how I had meant to send her my travel dates over the summer two months ago so we could arrange to get together sometime soon.

There was a terse email from Ruth, my only surviving college roommate, cutting to the chase as only she can and remarking that it took being hacked for me to send her an email and, sort of, keep in touch.

There was a message from Barbara, a friend from acting days some forty years ago, who is experiencing some significant health problems. Her delight over receiving the "How are you?" spam email and her subsequent explanation in detail as to how she really was made me both glad she felt comfortable enough to tell me and ashamed that I hadn't asked that question myself in recent months.

And there was a message from a former co-worker named Chelsea. I paused for a moment when I saw her name -- delighted to hear from her and puzzled. Chelsea and I had worked on the same floor of a high rise office building at UCLA Medical Center, but in different departments. Our paths crossed occasionally and we were always friendly. I liked her immensely. But my department's policies discouraged socializing. Despite working in close proximity, we never spent much time together.

Chelsea had also received my bogus email and inquiry "How are you?" and wrote back to tell me how surprised and delighted she was to hear from me. She shared some happy news: she's now a grandmother.

And the warmth of her response filled me with happy surprise that she had enjoyed hearing from me, that I was remembered at all.

And I felt hope that a new friendship could bloom from an old, casual work relationship, that new closeness could re-energize a friendship of many decades, that it was possible, with caring and with more frequent contact, to soothe the pain of neglected relationships.

It made me think, more than ever, how valuable and dear our relationships are and how easy it is, with our busy lives, to become too casual with them, too willing to let them slip away through long silences and frank neglect.

And so I've learned a lot from being hacked. This experience has:

Taught me to be vigilant about opening emails and attachments too hastily.

Taught me to choose my passwords with care.

And this experience has taught me to be more careful in the nurturing of relationships.

It has taught me to reach out to all the people I've thought dear...and ask about their lives. They have so many stories to tell and so much joy and vulnerability to share.

It has taught me to treasure all the friendships -- close and casual, long-time and new -- in my life and not let these slip away for lack of care.

And it has taught me something else: that the day I opened my email and found, to my consternation, that I had been hacked was, in fact, a very lucky day.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Catman: A Father's Day Tribute

Bob has never raised a child biologically his own, but he loved and nurtured Debra McDermott, now 51, his stepdaughter from his nine-year first marriage. He also mentored three special Little Brothers in his 22 years with the Big Brothers program in Los Angeles: Paco Pliego (who will be 44 next month), David Hughes (now 40) and Ryan Grady, who recently turned 30. Ryan, only 9 years old when they were matched, is now a social worker and psychotherapist and is very much like a beloved son to us.

Ryan and Bob hanging out in L.A. recently

Bob has also nurtured several generations of beloved rescue cats. It all started with Freddie, our first cat, who was an integral part of our family from 1982 to 1998. He was tough, athletic, full of personality -- and he dearly loved Bob from kittenhood to his dying days. Freddie taught us important lessons in love and loyalty -- and courage as he lived fully every day of his life, even when battling cancer.

Bob and kitten Freddie in 1982

Bob and dying Freddie in 1998

And even as we cared for Freddie in his last days, Bob still said a heartfelt "Yes!" to two abandoned kittens rescued by our vet. Timmy and Gus became part of our family during Freddie's last four months of life, bringing joy and energy and comfort to our home.

Bob with kittens Timmy (l) and Gus (r)

Bob and Timmy forged a special friendship. Timmy loved to curl on his shoulder and give him kisses. He touched his nose in greeting when Bob arrived home from work. And he loved to be with Bob whatever he was doing, including meditation.

Timmy kissing Bob - 1999

Timmy greeting Bob - 2002

Bob and Timmy meditating - 2007

When we lost Timmy to melamine poisoning from tainted cat food in 2007, we were heartbroken. He had been such a special friend to Bob, a therapy cat in my private practice and a very bonded brother to Gus, who howled for three weeks until we adopted a new kitten to help Gus -- and the two of us -- heal. Maggie was a dainty Bombay, a little black kitten Gus embraced immediately and who quickly developed a loving bond with Bob as well.

Bob and Maggie - 2007

Checking out new iPAD in 2012

Maggie comforting Bob during neurological test -2012

Maggie helping Bob with Situps - 2013

Maggie keeping Bob well-groomed - 2010

Marina, a beautiful flame point Siamese, was up for adoption when we went to Petsmart one summer day in 2008. We were looking for cat food -- not another cat -- but we couldn't resist this sweet two-year-old who had been given up by not one, but two families in as many years. They said she was too needy. We thought she was perfect: affectionate, sweet, loving and joyous. She was a wonderful companion, worked as a therapy cat in my private practice and slept on my pillow at night. 

Marina brought incredible joy to our lives in the tragically brief time she was with us. Diagnosed with leukemia shortly before we moved to Arizona in 2010, she continued to live joyously -- purring and trilling as she sat between us on the drive to our new home and reveling in the joys of the new house -- with its tile floors and granite counters. But three weeks after our move, she crashed -- and died of total organ failure a day later. We held her close and told her how much we loved her as her life slipped away.

Bob and Marina reading - 2009

Bob and Marina in AZ only days before her death - 2010

I missed Marina's Siamese intelligence and flame point sweetness so much that I began to look for another Siamese mix kitten later on in 2010 -- and I learned an important lesson: one cat does not replace another -- ever. Sweet Pea, a lynx point Siamese and tabby mix, has a personality all her own - sometimes sweet, sometimes contentious. But one thing was clear from the start: she loved Bob.

Bob and baby Sweet Pea in 2010
This photo inspired Bob to lose 40 pounds!

A year ago, in June 2012, we got a notice that Friends for Life, a rescue organization in nearby Gilbert, AZ had an orphaned flame point Siamese kitten. They called him Prince Charming. We named him Hamish -- and he won our hearts (and the hearts of our three other cats) immediately. Now as he grows into a sweet and affectionate young adult, we have to admit his first caregivers had it right: he really is charming!

Bob and baby Hamish - 2012

Chilling out with Sweet Pea and Hammie - 2013

And now Bob has plenty of company, no matter what he's doing: reading, practicing Tai Chi, napping, meditating or watching t.v. sports.

Reading with Hammie

Tai Chi with Sweet Pea and Maggie

Napping with Hammie

Meditation with Hammie

Bob and Gus watching t.v. sports together

And, in all the years he has nurtured our feline companions, Bob has discovered that they give at least as much love and caring as they get. When he suffers from his epilepsy-related depressions, night terrors and nightmares, Gus appears immediately -- lying on Bob's chest purring to calm him, lying across his legs to keep him still and, lately, he has been inspiring the other cats to help Bob as well.

Gus comforting Bob...

And inspiring Sweet Pea and Maggie to join them

Saying "Yes!" to love, to connections and to caring, whether it's for a lonely young person needing someone to notice, spend time with and encourage him or for an abandoned animal in need of a home, can bring incredible richness and joy to one's life. Through giving, one receives so many blessings.

Happy Father's Day to a singular Big Brother and Catman who has earned the enduring love of a very special young man -- and of several generations of wonderful rescue cats!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

You Know You're Old When...

You know you're getting old when kindness replaces indifference in total strangers, when your white hair inspires altruism in others.

In some ways, assumptions related to my appearance are nothing new.  I've always looked older than my true age since childhood.

I'll never forget the young Navy veteran I met at Sawyer's School of Business where my parents sent me to learn typing one summer many years ago. He was in his twenties, newly discharged from the service and taking business courses. He was also looking for a girlfriend. Despite his good looks and charm, I was not interested. Trying, nevertheless, to make conversation with me one day, he asked if I was headed back to college or to work after our summer classes ended.

My jaw dropped. "College?" I gasped. "I'll be in sixth grade this fall!"

The shock was evident on his face: "How old are you anyway?"

"I'm eleven."

I've never seen someone disappear so quickly.

It was just the beginning of a lifetime of looking older than my years.

I won a California state acting competition at the age of sixteen -- playing the role of a 50-year-old woman.

I was never carded at bars when I was in college.

My hair started turning gray well before my 30th birthday.

And so, as I settled into middle age, unasked for senior citizen discounts became routine.

They started coming when I was in my late forties and seriously graying.  One evening Bob and I went to a local Sizzler for dinner. The check was less than we expected. I mentioned this to the cashier.

"Oh," she smiled. "That's because I gave you the senior citizen discount!"

My husband, a year older than I and undiscounted, could barely contain his laughter as we walked to a table. "She's probably thinking 'What a nice guy: taking his dear mother out to dinner,'" he snickered. "We've got a Barbara-and-Poppy Bush thing going here."

I gave him a hard nudge in the ribs.

Two days later, I was telling my fellow therapists at a family counseling center about the incident. Lavaris Harris, an African American therapist who was close to my age, but with impossibly youthful good looks, was sympathetic nonetheless. She asked if I'd like to grab a quick lunch. We hit Jack in the Box for fajita pitas. As we were walking away from the cashier to a table, the young cashier called me back: "Wait, Ma'am! I forgot to give you the Silver Discount!"

 Despite her compassionate thoughts for me, Lavaris doubled over with laughter and could hardly wait to get back to the counseling center so she could tell everyone that I had received yet another unsolicited senior discount.

Now, of course, I am well into the age range for legitimate senior discounts.

Now I have white hair -- and lately the concessions to my age have been more extreme.

When leaving to visit my cousins in Kansas City recently, my first clue that this wasn't going to be an ordinary journey started in security as I was removing my shoes.

"Oh, honey!" a screener greeted me with a smile. "That's okay. Didn't you see the sign? Those born in 1937 or before don't have to remove their shoes. So keep your shoes on!"

I paused, confused. I was born in 1945. I didn't want to embarrass her. I also didn't want to get caught sneaking with shoes on through security when my ID clearly stated that I was under 75. I smiled back, thanked her and quietly told her that, despite my appearance, I was still young enough to need to remove my shoes.

Then, after boarding the plane, I was lifting my suitcase to the upper bin -- quite competently, I thought. But another passenger -- a young woman, interestingly enough -- rushed forward. "Oh, let me help you!" she said, grabbing my bag and deftly stowing it in the overhead bin. I thanked her warmly while wondering if I had been looking frail or if simply the sight of a white haired woman hefting a suitcase had prompted her kindness.

When I returned to Phoenix the other day, I was the recipient of two other kind offers: as I walked from the gate toward baggage claim at Sky Harbor Airport -- briskly, I thought -- an airport employee with an electric cart asked if I'd like a ride. I declined with "Oh, no, but thank you! This is my exercise for today!" And I walked on --faster than usual just to show him. Or was it to show myself that I'm not really slowing down?

And when I was outside baggage claim, curbside, waiting for Bob to pick me up, I briefly noticed a young couple, both with canes, sitting on a bench nearby. The young woman got up, leaning heavily on her cane, and smiled at me. "Would you like to sit down?" she asked. I thanked her, but declined, wondering if I was looking especially geriatric that day.

I think I am looking rather geriatric these days -- even if I still feel like a visitor and not a full-time resident of a rapidly aging body.

I do have my moments: like challenging my husband to an arm wrestling competition -- and winning! Like schlepping a whole trunk load of groceries into the house in one trip. Like swimming laps at a fast clip for an hour.

There are times I entertain the notion of lying about my age -- by inflating it. Have you seen those T-shirts that say things like "Sixty and Sexy" or "Seventy and Sensational." I'd feel silly wearing one of those because I don't look especially sexy or sensational for 68. But 80? If I got a T shirt saying I was in my eighties, maybe people would say "Wow! You look great for 85! You don't look a day over 75! Really!"

We all have our dreams.

But this recent glut of good will coming my way from fellow travelers and airport officials has given me pause. I've been moved by the kindness and respect of strangers. I've been surprised that it has been, most often, young women who have volunteered to help. And I've been humbled by the fact that they may have seen something I can't let myself see or feel or admit: that maybe I don't lift suitcases or balance or walk with the same assurance that I did when I was younger. Even thinking such thoughts is akin to my shock when I look in a mirror and see my mother's face.

And I stop -- with surprise and bemusement and a touch of sadness. Yes, the years take a toll.  I am looking noticeably older.  My aging is no longer an act or an illusion. It's a fact. And yet..... I still feel so young and strong and positively frisky inside!


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Adult Children: When They Get Married

Mala was in a panic: her son Maurice was talking about getting married and she feared losing him, feared losing the love and companionship she had so enjoyed with her son during the years since his father's death. As a justification for her distress rather than celebration, she quoted the old saying "A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter all her life."

Maurice -- a dear friend of mine -- called to ask me what he should do. He was beginning to question the wisdom of marrying at all.

I felt a combination of anger, compassion and concern. I knew that, for this woman, her son was her whole life. She had a wonderful daughter who had begged her to come live with her, but, steeped in the traditions of an old world culture, she felt firmly that her place was with her son.

She was a dragon when it came to defending her primacy in Maurice's life. She treated his girlfriends so rudely, so disrespectfully, that most fled within a short time. But Marilyn had stayed. Marilyn and Maurice truly loved each other. A widow with grown children and grandchildren who also loved Maurice, Marilyn was a blessing in his life for many years -- through countless joys and sorrows. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer and went through a tortuous year of surgery and chemotherapy, Marilyn was by his side. And now, after 18 years together, she wanted to get married. He did, too. But his mother was hysterical. As far as she was concerned, there could be no other woman permanently in his life.

He felt angry and ashamed. "My mother is a very selfish woman," he told me. "And I'm a fool to even think of being talked out of marrying Marilyn. I know that my marriage will be a game-changer, but so we all compromise, we adjust...."

While most parents don't cling quite so tenaciously and most families don't face the kind of prolonged, tempestuous pre-marital scenario my friend endured, the marriage of an adult child can, indeed, be a game-changer.

When adult children marry, it does change your relationship with them -- for better or for worse.

While some adult children grow closer to their parents when they marry and have children of their own, many more feel new conflicts as they struggle to maintain relationships with their parents while building a marriage and an independent adult life.

There are the difficult logistics. With most younger adult couples, both partners work outside the home  with long hours and commutes and with chores largely relegated to evenings and Saturdays. For many, Sunday may be the only day they have to rest and spend time together. So some Sundays may go by without a call or visit to one or either set of parents. While it's true that some married adult children do  call or visit their parents frequently, these are often the adult children whose calls are greeted with joy instead of accusations.

There is the challenge of divided loyalties: A young married couple is faced not only with building a life together, but also with maintaining relationships with not one, but two sets of parents -- more, in the case of divorced and remarried parents. When one set of parents feels competitive with the other and is always keeping score, finding a balance can be difficult.

There is the challenge of differing family values. Maybe one partner in the new marriage has a different concept of family -- having grown up with a vastly different sense of what it means to be close as a family and what keeping in touch involves. One partner may feel that being close means talking with a parent daily while his or her spouse may feel that once or twice a year is quite enough. And so the young couple may struggle for a time as they try to find a balance between time together and time with parents and other family members.

Differing values -- from religious beliefs to child-raising philosophies -- can also drive a wedge between parents and in-laws and their adult children.

There is the challenge of established family patterns.  Some families eagerly embrace new members and welcome the spouses of adult children warmly. Other families have what we psychotherapists call a closed family system and they exclude newcomers emotionally. Still others cling to old ways of being, not wanting the marriage of adult children to change anything about family dynamics.

And yet the marriage of adult children does change the dynamics by necessity. While they may love their parents dearly and forever, the spouse and subsequent children do need to come first. A daughter-in-law might always feel closer to her own parents. And differing values and beliefs can be a strain, especially when your own young adult child adopts these as his or her own.

So how does one keep close when marriage intervenes?

Honor the fact of shifting loyalties: Don't set up conflicts where your adult child is forced to choose between his or her spouse and you. Although there can be some adjustment pains, as there often are with change, there is likely to be room in their lives and yours for each other. Understanding their need to spend time with the other set of parents as well as alone together is critical to building a caring, adult relationship with the younger couple. If at all possible, try building your own positive relationship with your son or daughter-in-law's parents. This can help to prevent competition and to enable all of you to grow in love and acceptance as an extended family.

Instead of making demands, offer help with time pressures: If a young couple has only one day free a week, they won't always be spending it with you. Understanding their time constraints, find ways to be helpful, especially if you have more free time. Offer to run an errand, fix a home-cooked meal or babysit on occasion to help make their life a bit less hectic. If you're willing to give, they may be more giving with you a well.

Don't use money to control adult children.  A number of parents I've seen -- both in therapy and here in Sun City -- use money in an attempt to keep close or to maintain some modicum of control over their adult children. In many instances, these parents give money they really can't afford to part with in their efforts to stay close -- and then feel resentment when their adult children don't respond as they had hoped. And adult children -- while enjoying the benefits of the money --  may see the move for what it is: an attempt to maintain control and they often resent this hidden -- or not so hidden -- agenda.

Treat differences in values gently. Religious and cultural differences are practically inevitable these days as our society becomes more diverse and marriages more likely to reflect such diversity. Whether adult children are religious or not, whether they worship within the same denomination, whether they observe all the religious holidays or not is less important than whether they are happy, living with love, and able to care for themselves and their growing families.

And if you're feeling judged by a new son or daughter-in-law, you might choose to see such judgments as insecurity and find ways to build ties despite your differences. Don't criticize or judge in return.

It can, admittedly, be difficult to keep your mouth shut when you're feeling hurt and newly distanced from a much-loved son or daughter.  Some friends I'll call June and Steve recently told me that their relationship with their 30-year-old son had deteriorated considerably since his marriage to an evangelical Christian woman whom they described as "so hate-filled and judgmental of everyone that a relationship with her -- actually, now with both of them -- has become impossible."

Another parent of a young adult, a single mother named Paula, describes her son-in-law as a "militant atheist who makes fun of my religious beliefs and doesn't want the grandkids around me."

Agreeing to disagree without engaging the grandchildren in the battle may help. Respecting the views of another, even when you disagree, can made a difference. So can making the most of your time together -- making an effort to enjoy each other -- instead of allowing grievances, arguing and nagging to define visits.

Letting go of old expectations that you will all agree on the essentials, that your relationship with your son or daughter will never change, that adult children will always behave in the way you raised them to behave and believe will free you to rebuild your relationships with adult children and their families and to live your own life as fully as possible.

And if you're feeling cut off, keep the communication channels open and live life fully. Send birthday and Christmas cards and short, loving notes. Text them with positive comments. Make a brief call with no accusations, only love.

Cultivate other pleasures, interests and relationships in your life. One doesn't truly replace another, but when you can create a life for yourself independent of your adult children, you may feel begin to feel more at peace. You will, undoubtedly, continue to feel sad and disappointed about the changes that marriage and/or young adulthood have brought to your relationship with your son or daughter. But when the focus of your life shifts more to your own pursuits, the pain may lessen somewhat.

Closeness can't be forced. The only behavior you can control is your own -- and feeling in control of your own life can be empowering.

Admittedly, it isn't always easy. And sometimes the turn of events can feel terribly unfair.

There are instances where parents behave wonderfully and still get rejected by adult children. There are times when the attitudes and demands of adult children and/or their spouses are totally unreasonable. There are many times when life does, indeed, take a decidedly unfair turn.

There isn't a lot you can do in such instances except to express love and to go on with you life.

This loving letting go of your adult children and your expectations for and about them may free you to be happy in other ways and free them to live their own lives.  This sense of freedom and emotional independence may bring you closer over time -- because being close will be an active choice, not a dreaded obligation.

All of this is so easy to say -- and so very hard to do.

But the alternative can be even harder. Fighting change, clinging to the status quo and not letting go with love can lead to years of unhappiness -- for you and for your adult children.

My friend Maurice never did marry Marilyn, the love of his life. As time went on, sad, angry and tired of being demonized by his dragon-mother, she left.  Maurice and his mother continued to live together -- tempestuously -- until she died last summer at 104. Maurice, now 82, alone and in ill health, looks back with regret and resignation.

"She couldn't let go and neither could I," he says now. "And I never stopped resenting her or berating myself for that. If only she had been able to open her heart and her mind -- and if  only I had had the courage to follow my heart."

In trying to please his mother, Maurice ended up pleasing no one -- and losing the love of his life. In winning her battle to come first with her son, Mala also lost. Despite the fact that they continued to live together and share all the remaining days of her life, their relationship -- simmering with anger, recrimination and regret  -- was never the same once Marilyn walked out of their lives forever.