Friday, December 27, 2013

Holiday Reflections

We wished each other a very Merry Christmas over the phone and then fell into an embarrassed silence.

Did I just tell my friend Mary, whose husband is so ill and increasingly disabled, to have a Merry Christmas?

And her greeting to me fell on a heart a little heavy with extended family far away, with a spouse who prefers solitude to celebration and with my frantic work schedule crowding out the possibility of much holiday partying this year.

Mary broke the silence with a wistful "I put on all the old Christmas music I have listened to with such joy since I was a child and it just didn't sound the same to me this year. That spirit of the holiday wasn't there. Some of the people I most want to be with can't be here..."

"Christmas is so quiet this year, for both of us," I said.

And we both looked back to different times: to times filled with family and presents and feasts and song, to tables where all the seats were filled, to small children excited about Santa, to cuddling and firelight, to parents alive and well, to work friends at 'TEEN, all of us crowding into our boss's office on Christmas Eve to sigh together over his war stories and football stories and strange jokes and to keep him company when he didn't want to go home alone and to enjoy each other's company in our shared plight. Mary thought back on the years when the children were young and when the grands were little and thrilling in the season, to a time before families moved to distant places and schedules became so complicated. I thought back to all those holidays with Aunt Molly, both in childhood and adulthood, when just being with her, laughing with her, celebrating with such joy was the greatest gift I could have imagined.

We reflected on how it's not the same, has never been the same, since the kids grew up and the grandkids hit busy adolescence and Aunt Molly passed away, since years and stress have taken a toll on our stamina and we wonder whether it's even worth it to put up the lights, the tree, all the trimmings stored so carefully for each year's celebration.

And we came to the conclusion that happy holidays are a matter of celebrating what is: what is wonderful in our lives today, the ways we deal with current challenges, the blessings of health and hope, and new ways of finding joy in our days.

Mary reflected on how she cherishes her mornings as her husband sleeps: lingering over coffee, talking on the phone with friends, walking along the beach with her dogs, enjoying the sunshine and the hint of salt and chill in the ocean breezes. Christmas morning was another day to enjoy all of that before eldest child Matt and his wife Patti and friend Rosemary came over bearing food and good cheer for a delightful Christmas feast.

I reflected on my gratitude for a book deadline once again after too many years of no writing assignments, for generous invitations from friends that we turned down this year due to my work schedule and Bob's increased need for solitude. Although I was initially disappointed that Bob didn't want the holiday feast I've cooked every previous holiday season, I reframed it as a precious gift of time to do something else. And what I did on Christmas was to give myself a day off from my work and to spend it reading two highly praised novels I recently checked out of the library -- "The Interestings" and "Life After Life".  Both -- one about long friendships and the emotions, compromises, challenges and joys they bring and survive over time as we redefine the meanings and the value of ordinariness and success and the other about the infinite variations life can take and how tiny decisions can make such major differences in one's life -- are so congruent with my life and experiences and feelings as I celebrate this quiet holiday season. How delicious it felt to read not one but two excellent novels back to back, cover to cover, in one sitting.

And there was the blessing of loving, longtime friendship as Mary and I said "Goodbye...I love you..." that day and in signs of life growing on in a variety of ways. There were the enthusiastic cuddles with my wonderfully affectionate cats Gus and Hammie. There was an excited email from my little niece Maggie, so far away in Bangkok, Thailand, writing to tell me that Santa had brought her an iPad of her very own so that we could do Facetime. She invited me to check in with her that very minute to have a virtual breakfast with her and the family, 14 hours ahead of Arizona time.

The holidays are a time of remembering and missing what once was and what can never happen in quite the same way again. But the warmth can stay with us in memory and in the present. Our happiness this holiday season depends on finding joy in change, in growth, in what is -- whether it's a walk in the sunshine, a day of uninterrupted reading or an excited email from a little girl half a world away with an invitation to a virtual breakfast.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Pain of the Holidays

Bob showed me a New Yorker cartoon series the other day that featured a numerical scale for measuring the pain of family encounters during the holidays.

Despite our recent excellent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with dear friends, we laughed with recognition and recollection at the pain-o-meters. There were some holidays past that brought us to the edge of despair  -- and our experiences were not uncommon.

What kinds of family interactions bring the anticipation or the reality of holiday pain?

There is the pain of hanging onto holiday traditions that no longer make sense: insisting that your home be celebration central when the family has grown to embrace and include others, when grown children have in-laws to consider, when young families yearn to start their own traditions.

There is the pain of finding yourself alone this holiday season, either after the deaths of family members or the pressure of new obligations in their lives, and you're reminded so painfully of holidays past, when all the seats around your table were filled by loved ones.

There is the pain of clustering in close proximity to family members you rarely see except for holidays, sometimes for good reason. These may be the family members who set your teeth on edge with sexist, racist remarks or stubborn clinging to old family roles no longer relevant to your daily lives. Or your family may have a volatile mix of Tea Partiers and dedicated Liberals, raising havoc at family gatherings.

There is the pain of crushing boredom as a holiday wears on, hour after hour, and you sigh over the same old arguments, the same stories, the same annoying children, the super boring family drunk, the card games that make you wish you had stayed home with the covers over your head and the cell phone turned off.

There is the pain of feeling that a holiday is never really yours. Do the holidays feel more like a frenzy of pleasing others instead of relaxing and enjoying this special time the way you'd like? This can be particularly true of younger families who still have parents and even grandparents living, who sprint from one family home to another to put in an appearance and please the folks.

How can you cut the pain you've experienced and dread living through again through holiday season 2013?
  • Insist on a truce for the day. In the interest of family harmony, put relatives on notice that there will be no baiting, no grandstanding, no confrontations of a political, religious or lifestyle nature. And if it starts, there should be designated family members who step in and call a halt before tempers get out of control. On the other hand, some family disputes are simply part of holiday tradition and legend. I read about one family that gathers every year in the kitchen to hear the matriarch and patriarch have their annual argument about how the gravy should be made. There was a traditional argument in our family -- mostly in jest, only occasionally getting heated -- about Aunt Molly's cheerful holiday spirit and her brother's (my father's) complete lack of interest in Christmas or New Year's celebrating. It's essential to know the difference between recreational or traditional skirmishes and family fights that mar the holiday for everyone. 
  • Don't insist on 100% attendance. Traditions are great, but people need a break. Especially young couples, with so many parents and others to please, can feel pulled a number of ways during the holidays. Be gracious if a son or daughter needs to spend a holiday elsewhere this year. Plan to do something fun together before or after. Don't assume that everyone shares your vision of how the holiday should be. A close friend of mine dreams of spending Christmas in her pajamas, listening to Christmas music, reading a fat novel and eating pancakes, cookies and sandwiches made from a Christmas Eve pot roast. Instead, her husband has committed them, once again, to spend the holiday at a raucous party with acquaintances who drink to excess, make hours of small talk and play bridge -- which she hates -- relentlessly. We all have our times when we chose to please others for the holidays, but that needs to be balanced with pleasing ourselves -- or allowing dear ones to do so. Another friend actually encourages her daughter to have an intimate Christmas alone at home with her husband and two young children "because they need to build their own holiday traditions as well as celebrating with us on the 23rd -- which has become our special day together."
  • Plan activities and a designated family member to keep the kids entertained.  One really can't blame little ones for getting restive and bored at largely adult celebrations. Perhaps one or alternating family members can take charge of playing games with or otherwise entertaining the kids to cut down on the emotional chaos that can come from children feeling trapped and hopeless as the day drags on.
  • Tame the wildlife. Many very good and loving people are nevertheless not especially enamored with animals. Relegate the cats to a bedroom and close the door. Separate the dog from your feasting guests. Struggling to keep one's holiday meal out of the jaws of a slathering beast who keeps popping beside guests at the table or trying not to see the cat's tail dipping into the gravy boat does not make for much holiday cheer for many otherwise amiable people. 
  •  Start new traditions. This could mean getting together with relatives and agreeing on stress-reducing new holiday traditions: like drawing names for gift-giving instead of budget-breaking gift giving  extravaganzas or agreeing on a day -- the actual holiday or not -- for a big family get together with smaller celebrations for individual families on other days. It could mean, too, that you make some adjustments within for celebrating in your own ways on days that you find yourself home alone.  Or it could mean creating some preventive new traditions -- like establishing sober holiday celebrations if alcohol is a major family issue or a trigger for fierce family feuds.
  • Get real -- and revise your holiday expectations. Some people harbor the wistful fantasy that this holiday season, this time will be the charm. This will be the year when everything goes right, when everyone shows up, gets along and peace and good will are in abundance. Don't set yourself up for disappointment once again. Expect less. Expect that there will be some uneasy moments, some conflict, some boredom. The certainty of some family interactions may be oddly reassuring if you put a positive spin on it. If you keep your expectations for the holiday realistic, you're less likely to be disappointed. You might find yourself happily surprised!
  • Plan a special holiday treat for yourself. After a season of pleasing others -- which may be fun and rewarding or largely an exhausting marathon of pain and frustration -- plan a day or a way of treating yourself. Plan a day to do something special: a spa day, a hike with friends, a day relaxing, reading or listening to your favorite music, a trip to a museum or art gallery, a quiet dinner at home with friends, your dearest love or even happily alone, with your favorite menu. 
New traditions, revised rules and special treats can ease holiday pain and make this holiday season well worth celebrating!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Life Lessons From an Aging Cat

As yet another Christmas and New Year approach, I'm so thankful that someone especially dear to me is still here, purring by my side, to share the celebrations.

Our elderly cat Gus, frail in the middle of his 16th year, is still a pivotal member of the family, still a model of calm, of loving acceptance and resilience with some important life lessons to teach.


What kind of life lessons am I learning from my aging cat?

The pleasure of daily routines: Gus has an internal clock that keeps exquisite time. And he's always looking forward to something -- like breakfast at 5 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m.  Like mandatory cuddles just as I sit down with the morning newspaper. And promptly, at 7:30 every evening, a quarter-sized dollop of whipped cream on a saucer. After the whipped cream, he is sated -- content with a last cuddle just before bedtime. His routine rarely varies. He lives from pleasure to pleasure.

The rewards of generativity: Since losing his brother Timmy to melamine poisoning in middle age, Gus has raised a series of kittens. The first was Maggie, a scraggly little black Bombay discarded into rescue by a Beverly Hills breeder. We brought her home to console Gus, who was howling every night for his deceased brother, and the bonding was immediate. He embraced her, groomed her, held her as they slept and taught her by example to be a calm and caring young cat. He had a bit more of a challenge with a later addition, Sweet Pea aka The Rabid Badger, who is the wild, erratic element in our feline family. With time and patience, he and Maggie helped to tame her fierceness without trampling her spirit and now Sweet Pea cuddles up to him, grooming him, as Maggie does. Perhaps Gus' happiest mentoring project has been with young Hammie, a male Siamese mix who looks a little like Gus's late brother Timmy, and who adores Gus. Since Hammie came to us as a two-month-old kitten, Gus has befriended and embraced him. Now Hammie takes wonderful care of him, growing into a gentle and loving young cat.   

                                             Gus with kitten Maggie

                                           Gus with kitten Sweet Pea

                                           Gus with kitten Hammie

                                           Gus and Hammie, his little buddy

                                          Relaxing with Maggie and Sweet Pea                                    

                                          Young adult Hammie cuddles aging Gus


                                           Hammie now grooms elderly Gus

The wisdom of stoicism about the aches and pains of aging: Unlike many of us here in Sun City, Gus rarely complains about his geriatric condition. His arthritic pain is visible only briefly, when he jumps down from the bed or couch and has to pause as his back settles, or as he pads across the cold tile on newly tender paws. But aches and pains don't keep him from essential activities. He is still there quickly when called, when he wants attention or affection, when it's meal time or when whipped cream is served. And a brown paper bag or a feather on a string channels his instant inner kitten.  He shows the younger ones how to chase a laser or how to conquer a moving feather or a tented newspaper. He feels his years, some days more than others, but he never lets pain interfere with his play.

The advisability of not getting involved in things that don't matter or are toxic: He steps back from squabbles and has little interest in Sweet Pea's hissy fits or Maggie's territorial growlings. He ignores Hammie's tail-biting antics. He stays resolutely above the fray -- and is the one cat that all the others seem to love and with whom they seek rest and refuge.

                             A peaceful group cuddle with Gus, Hammie and Maggie

The wisdom of living fully in the moment. Gus lives to savor life. He stretches out at the front door screen, basking in the warmth of a summer evening or inhaling with puzzled pleasure the scent of mesquite after an autumn rain. He finds a spot of sun streaming from the bay window and turns his face to it. He stakes out a napping place among the lush decorative pillows on our bed. He slides with particular pleasure into the battered little donut bed he has had since kittenhood, curls up and snores through the night. He licks every trace of whipped cream from his saucer every night and comes to say "Thank you!" with a gentle rub of his head.

                     Savoring the summer evening with Hammie and Sweet Pea

Gus is especially happy each Thanksgiving and Christmas when he smells a turkey in the oven. He lounges by the oven much of the day, enjoying the warmth and the scent and re-discovering with delight, once again, how much he loves small scraps of dark meat.

The joy of savoring relationships that matter. Gus is kind and affectionate with anyone who seeks him out these days. But certain people mean the most.

Gus loves to soothe Bob when he's not feeling well

Or to keep him company during a big football game

Many times a day, Gus comes to me, looks in my eyes and wants to cuddle, to be touched, to be cherished -- and to give this back. There is always enough time to enjoy his family and special friends. And he reminds me to take time when I'm too absorbed with the newspaper -- which he will stand up and bat away or reach over and pull down until we are face to face. When I'm sitting at the computer, oblivious, he'll stand up and gently tap me on the shoulder or rest his front paws on my thigh, mewing quietly to remind me that I can always type or read. But I may not always have the pleasure of simply cuddling with Gus.


Whatever time we have left together, Gus will continue to teach me what it means to enjoy every moment, every experience of life and what it means to love -- in the moment and forever.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Holiday for the Ages

Coming home for the Thanksgiving holiday was an invitation too tempting, too wonderful, to refuse.

It came from Mary Kate Schellhardt, the actress daughter of my dear friend Tim, and her boyfriend filmmaker Matt Palko, who are renting my Los Angeles area childhood home from my brother Mike, who now lives with his family in Bangkok, Thailand.
                                      Mary Kate and Matt, our wonderful hosts

It was a chance to spend time in familiar territory -- a house that my parents bought when I was 18 months old and where my brother Mike and sister Tai lived from birth, experiencing both love and terror as the children of a sometimes violent, sometimes nurturing alcoholic father and an always loving, but often terrified mother.

It was a chance to spend the holiday with another family comprised of some very special people -- Mary Kate, one of my favorite adult children of dear friends, her Dad and my close friend Tim, who was flying from Chicago for the occasion and Mary Kate's wonderful sister Eliza, traveling with her husband Chris from Colorado to celebrate the holiday.

It was a chance to give up control of a holiday I hosted for years and to just enjoy being a guest -- with only a brief stint in the kitchen making the dressing.

It was lovely.

Imagine crossing a threshold you had toddled over and stormed past, walked through in hope and in sorrow, and now with happy anticipation, to be enveloped in loving arms and words: "I'm so glad to see you...How wonderful to meet you...I'm so happy you're here...I love you, dearest friend..." And to hear yourself saying the same....

Imagine feeling an instant ease without a trace of awkwardness not only with long-time friends but also with the significant others in their lives whom you're meeting for the first time.

Imagine the delight of finding that the innate eccentricity of a place you once called home lives on in its current residents.  Matt, who counts tomahawk and knife throwing among his many interests, has set up a target in the backyard and before dinner there was a lively contest where an assortment of young people -- Chris, Chris' brother Tim and his soon-to-be bride Kristen, Ryan, Bob's grown up Little Brother whom we call our "surrogate son" -- all trying to master the skill that Matt makes look easy.

  Pre-dinner tomahawk lesson with Matt Palko, Tim Yarbrough and Ryan Grady

Tomahawk Throw Wind-Up: from left, Tim Y. and Kristen, Chris, me, Matt,
Mary Kate, Ryan and Eliza

Imagine the pleasure of stories told, fun and intimate conversations with friends old and new, over a candlelight dinner and the flickering glow of a backyard firepit where we settled, wrapped in blankets and holiday cheer, to continue talking and laughing together for hours after dinner.

Imagine a late night dessert by candlelight and being stunned that it's nearly midnight when it seems the holiday just began an hour or two before.

Late night candlelit dessert

Imagine the seamless passage of time when a few of us found ourselves the elders, surrounded by lively thirtysomethings with growing careers and families. Mary Kate's friend Lacy was there with her husband and baby son Jackson -- whom my friend Tim entertained through the evening with songs and stories and countless hugs -- partly a warm up exercise for being a grandfather when Eliza and Chris' baby girl is born in April (and when his grandson, thanks to eldest daughter Laura, arrives in March) and partly pure joy at meeting and spending time with this delightful little boy.

             My dear friend Tim Schellhardt with his new little friend Jackson

Imagine the wonder of spending time with some young people -- like Ryan whom I'm seen grow up at close range since he was a droll little nine-year-old to the fine young man -- and psychotherapist -- he has become. And with some young adults like Mary Kate, with whom I enjoyed some time together when we both lived in Los Angeles, and with her sister Eliza, whom I watched grow up and came to love in a lovely series of Christmas pictures over the years. The real life Eliza, filled with intelligence, wit and warmth, and her equally wonderful sister, the beautiful and ebullient Mary Kate, were a joy to be with -- and to watch as they enjoyed each other, joining forces to whip up culinary delights in the kitchen and later on sitting, knee to knee, talking with great enthusiasm and love. Chris and Matt, so welcoming and kind and quick to share a warm hug and fascinating story, added joy and fun to the magic of the day and evening.

                                  With two of my favorite men, Ryan (l) and Tim

Imagine a quiet celebration of a long-time loving friendship. Tim and I enjoyed time together, celebrating and rediscovering all the elements that have built our nearly 50-year-friendship. I have always enjoyed his intelligence, his kindness, his warmth and fierce loyalty, but I had forgotten, as we've aged, just how wonderfully uninhibited, silly and funny he can be in the company of people he loves. Watching him sing, joke and reach out with warmth to Ryan, whom he was meeting for the first time, took me back through the years to our college days and what it meant to me to meet a man, a journalism classmate, who was both brilliant and kind, ambitious and generous of spirit and what a blessing it has been to be his friend over the years.

                                     Tim and me, celebrating a 50-year friendship

Imagine an acceptance of the cycle of life and of aging -  sitting on the porch where I celebrated my second birthday, now, all these years later, celebrating with friends both old and new.

Tim (c) with daughters Eliza (1) and her husband Chris Yarbrough
and Mary Kate (r) with boyfriend Matt Palko

Imagine falling in love with an entire family that so exudes love and resilience, tolerance, humility (despite a myriad of professional achievements among them) and genuine joy in being together.

It was, indeed, a holiday for the ages!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

It was a trip we had been eagerly anticipating: a drive over to Los Angeles to see some of our dearest friends. There was Thanksgiving at my childhood home, now rented by actress Mary Kate Schellhardt and her boyfriend filmmaker Matt Palko, with her Dad, my dear friend Tim, flying in from Chicago for the holiday and her wonderful sister Eliza and husband Chris coming from Colorado for the festivities. We planned a stay at The Pierpont Inn in Ventura, our favorite oceanside inn, as well as visiting with Ryan, our beloved surrogate son, and a couple of lovely visits with my dear friend Mary.

We did everything right in our planning -- packing wisely and well in advance; arranging for a reliable pet-sitter;planning to leave for L.A. on Monday in order to avoid the worst of the holiday traffic; setting the alarm so we could be up pre-dawn for a 6 a.m. departure.

We prepared for bed early on Sunday night. Bob went into the bathroom to take a shower and came back looking puzzled.

"I can't get any hot water," he said. "Maybe the pilot light's out in the water heater."

He threw on a robe and we went out to the chilly garage. There was no pilot light. We tried repeatedly to re-ignite it. Nothing. I went online for an informational video from Roto-Rooter on how to get a pilot light lit. We had been doing the right thing. I decided to call Roto-Rooter for emergency service.

"We can send someone out," the operator told me. "But it will be several hours before he can get there. You're really out in the sticks. The technician will be there about 1 a.m. Is that okay?"

Sharp intake of breath. "Yes," I said at last. "We'd really appreciate it."

I told Bob that he ought to go to bed and get some sleep since he was driving the first leg of our journey while I could catch up on sleep in the car as he drove. He nodded and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

The technician, Brian, showed up right on time, just after the water heater began gushing water, flooding the garage. It didn't take long for him to ascertain that we needed a new water heater. What? Our first water heater in Los Angeles lasted 18 years! The second was still going strong when we moved after 11 years and counting. This one was only four years old! "But the water here is so corrosive,"Brian said. "It's quite common for water heaters to fail after three or four years. We could install a new one for you later today -- or whenever you'd like."

After awakening Bob for a quick consultation, we decided that the new water heater would be installed in a week, after our return.  Brian gave us a date and time and left about 2 a.m. after draining what was left in the defective water heater.

I went to bed for three hours of fitful sleep, arising with Bob at 5 a.m. By 5:45, we had packed the car and pulled out of the driveway. But two blocks into our 500 mile journey, Bob turned around. "I think I need my warmer coat," he said, shivering in the early morning chill.

When we walked into the house, we were greeted by our young female cat Sweet Pea, who was whimpering and limping. I called the emergency vet line. She couldn't be seen until 8:30. Bob and I looked at each other and made an instant mutual decision: we would delay our long-anticipated trip for a day to take care of business.

We arranged for the new water heater to be installed that afternoon. Bob admitted that the pressure sore on his (bony) rear end was bothering him and he made a doctor's appointment while I took Sweet Pea to the vet.

The most tightly wound of our four cats, Sweet Pea usually screams and hyperventilates for the duration of the 15 mile journey to the vet's office. This time, the screaming stopped after just a few blocks and she lapsed into profound silence. I jiggled her carrier to make sure she was still alive. There was a yowl of protest. Reassured, I drove on.

The various crises were easily resolved: salve for Bob, rest for Sweet Pea's sprained foot and a new water heater was installed by 3 p.m. We enjoyed hot showers that night and got a sound sleep before heading off Tuesday morning.

We not only felt more rested, but also a bit wiser. Our experience had taught us several important lessons, such as:

The importance of listening to one's body. Bob admitted that he had been experiencing significant discomfort for several days before our planned departure, but put off going to the doctor because he didn't want anything to interfere with our travel plans. Getting medication and reassurance from the doctor that his condition was not serious helped him to enjoy our trip even more.

The importance of taking action rather than procrastinating.  Taking care of the water heater as soon as possible minimized our discomfort and inconvenience, giving us hot showers to return to after a  very long journey home. We were thankful that we had had the heater replaced before we left.

The primacy of family -- and all creatures in the family -- over well-laid plans. Seeing Sweet Pea in pain was the deal breaker for our original travel schedule. We couldn't leave her like that. We didn't want to shift the responsibility of seeking care onto the pet-sitter. Sweet Pea, who is terribly afraid at the vet's, needed to nuzzle into my arms during the examination. We owed her that. And one night lost at our ocean-side inn was minimal compared to her well-being.

The importance of gratitude -- even in challenging times.  As we got ready to head out Tuesday morning, we were overcome with feelings of gratitude about how fortunate we had been. What if the water heater had flooded the garage while we were gone? What if we hadn't returned for Bob's coat and noticed that Sweet Pea was injured? What if Bob's discomfort had increased and necessitated emergency care in California instead of with his regular doctor here?

Running through the various alternative scenarios, we found ourselves giving heartfelt thanks two days before Thanksgiving as we hit the road -- newly carefree and anticipating good times ahead.