Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Perfectly Imperfect Holidays

The realization hit as I was visiting my brother Mike and his family last week when they were at their Los Angeles home briefly before returning to their home base in Thailand for the holidays: I pile stress on myself with expectations that a holiday must be as perfect as possible.

Mike and I decided to celebrate Christmas together this past Wednesday and a big part of this was preparing a holiday meal. I expected we would do the shopping a day or so before. But Mike was comfortable waiting until Wednesday morning.

What?? I was quietly aghast.

Memories of Christmases past flooded back: the times I had cooked the turkey the weekend before Christmas so that everything would be perfect and ready to serve mid-day so that Aunt Molly wouldn't have to drive home in the dark. Even after Aunt Molly's death, I tended to have the turkey in the oven in the early morning hours. Was it even possible to properly roast a turkey with this late start? I was worried.

But Mike was confident as he, his five-year-old daughter Maggie and I hit the local market. He found a lovely fresh turkey. We gathered up all the ingredients for my signature dressing plus potatoes and fresh vegetables. The turkey was in the oven by noon and soon the house was filled with the lovely smells of a holiday dinner in the making.

Mike and I relaxing as the turkey roasts:
A new concept for me!

Maggie watched and helped as I made the dressing, noting and exhaulting in each step, asking "Is it done yet?" all along the way, but hanging in there eagerly to the end.

Finally, it was done. We wrapped the dressing and put it in the refrigerator, to be warmed again closer to the time we would be serving dinner.

By 6 p.m., all was ready.

But some of the guests were late, caught in hideous West Los Angeles holiday traffic. Mike and Amp's two year old son Henry, sick with the flu, was screaming himself to sleep. Finally, he was silent in feverish slumber. His exhausted mother Amp announced that she was going to walk a block to the versateller and disappeared for several hours -- doing a last bit of Christmas shopping and catching her breath after a trying day and night with an ailing and cranky child.

Mike surveyed the perfectly browned turkey, cooling on the counter, and smiled. "Maybe we ought to make sure it's okay," he said, slicing off bits of white and dark meat and removing a wing. We sat at the table, sampling, satisfied with our work. 

The mashed potatoes and dressing were cooling in their serving dishes. The gravy was ready for reheating in a pan on the stove. The turkey was rapidly cooling -- and looking a bit diminished as Mike and I continued to nibble. Maggie was intent on playing with her dolls and doll house, having enlisted the first arriving guest Nora to play out her fantasy scenario with her.

The clock ticked on. Dinner cooled. The turkey looked shopworn. My brows furrowed with worry. "Maybe we ought to start reheating everything...." I said, getting up and moving toward the stove. My brother smiled.

"Just relax," he said. "People will eat when they get here, when they want to. It doesn't have to be or look perfect."

I sat down and took a deep breath. He was right. It was his home and his party and I needed to let go of my desire to have everything just so.

Some guests arrived. Some sat down at the table and filled their plates. Others dawdled, talking, in the family room. Another joined Maggie and Nora in play. And Amp eventually returned with presents and good cheer, nibbling bits of turkey and dressing as she visited with guests. Even Henry woke up feeling like celebrating and smiling broadly when family friend Viviene gave him a teddy bear that recited "The Night Before Christmas."

It was lovely. There was good conversation, thoughtful gifts, much savoring of food and many hugs. No one seemed to mind that some of the food was lukewarm or that dinner was more of a group graze than a formal sit down affair. Comfort and good cheer were in the air.

After the graze: Mike, Maggie, me, Vivo, Nora

Perfectly imperfect father-daughter pose.

Maggie thanks Vivo for a perfect gift

When I returned home to Arizona the next day, Bob had put up our Christmas tree but left the decorating to me because he knows how much I enjoy that. I immediately found the box of ornaments -- all hand made by his parents in the eighties -- and put them on the tree, preoccupied by loving memories of his dear mother, gone for more than 25 years now. 

Then I went to the bedroom to unpack. Minutes later, I returned to a chaotic scene: our male cats Hammie and Ollie had climbed into the tree and were wrestling with each other and seizing ornaments in their teeth and flinging them down. The tree skirt --also made by Bob's mother -- was dragged into the middle of the living room and was bunched up with chewed up newspapers. They had, indeed, been busy in my brief absence.

I shouted at both of them and they scampered out of the tree, shaking more ornaments down. I put ornaments and the tree skirt back in place. I cleaned up the shredded newspaper. All was well.

Until an hour later. I returned to the living room and saw the tree shaking. Hammie and Ollie were at it again, this time wrestling under the tree and snagging the less valuable ornaments (purchased rather than those made by Bob's parents) that I always put on the lower branches. 

And so it has continued... despite drenchings from our mister and stern admonitions. 

                                               A very Ollie Christmas

Where's Ollie??? Look for the eyes...

Feline re-arrangements for an imperfect tree

Hammie Stripping the Tree

Ollie at Rest on Relocated Tree Skirt

I'm taking another deep breath and am beginning to see the living room not as a chaotic mess, but as a family decorating project. Perhaps the traveling tree skirt and widely spread ornaments are my cats' contribution to holiday decor and cheer. And wrestling cats in the tree add a novel twist to our traditional holiday celebration.

Holiday perfection is an elusive and stressful goal. Being content and at peace with what is can make for a much happier holiday...

                                         Whether Christmas is a work day, as it is for
                                         Mike, now back in Bangkok, taking a break at 
                                        his hospital's cafe

Whether it's embracing or tussling with those we love 

Whether or not you're on key, feeling the
pleasure of caroling with friends...

No matter how perfect or perfectly imperfect your holidays may be, here's wishing you love, laughter, happy feasting, fun conversations and and a wealth of good will!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Seasonal Stress Tips

This year, the first signs of the holiday season edged ever closer to Halloween, often appearing in early November. This phenomenon of ever-earlier holiday decor seems to be world-wide. Friko, one of my favorite bloggers, noted it in her area of the UK. And my brother Mike, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand (a country that is predominantly Buddhist, but that celebrates Christmas enthusiastically anyway), snapped a cell phone picture of the holiday decor already evident at his local mall a week ago.


Christmas decor comes early to Bangkok, too!

For many of us, these first signs of the holidays bring not comfort and joy, but feelings of stress as we imagine the whole holiday scenario: the endless to-do lists, the shopping, the cooking, the planning, the fraught family get-togethers, the dreams of a Hallmark Christmas rudely interrupted by stark reality, coping with life changes while observing long-held traditions, the anxiety, the depression, the feeling of being overwhelmed.

As another holiday season is relentlessly upon us, what can we do to decrease this stress and increase our joy this time around?

If you're feeling overwhelmed.  Pare that daunting to-do list down a bit. Cut corners for your own mental health. Even small changes can made a difference. Cut a few items from your holiday menu and concentrate on the ones you and your family enjoy most. Don't make ten varieties of cookies when you know which two the grandkids love. Turn a party into a potluck. People love to share their specialties so make a party of sharing favorite cookies or holiday treats or seasonal entrees. It cuts your work and brings more variety and fun to the gathering. If you're the designated provider of the traditional family feast this year, don't be ashamed to ask for help. Your mother or mother-in-law may be happy to lend her expertise or siblings may be willing to help. If you are preparing some family favorites -- like pies and some side dishes -- that can be made in advance, this collaborative effort can become a separate, fun and memorable holiday celebration -- and maybe a new tradition!

Making adjustments to your meal timelines can also help when family feasts start to get complicated. When, in my late twenties, I first began hosting family holiday meals, I cooked and served the meal the same day. As years went by and Aunt Molly stopped driving at night (and yet didn't want to stay over because of her sickly cat at home), I re-scheduled our holiday feast for mid-day. And I would roast the turkey the weekend before, carving the meat and freezing it, as well as preparing and freezing some side dishes. Then on the holiday, I would re-heat the frozen items and make whatever was best fresh and have the meal easily on the table by noon. The scenario shifted again as Aunt Molly became housebound. Her kitchen was tiny and she didn't like us using it much. So we would transport Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in coolers -- to be briefly reheated if necessary -- and enjoy it at her home. Again, because I was working long hours up to the holiday, I would prepare as much of the meal as possible the weekend before and freeze it. Though I initially feared that this would interfere with the taste and quality of the food, no one ever complained. We simply enjoyed the food -- and each other. 

If you're feeling that your life is totally interrupted. Even in the midst of busy holiday preparations and celebrations, you'll feel better if you can keep up some of your normal daily routine. Make exercise a priority. It will not only keep life feeling normal, but will also help protect you from runaway holiday weight gain! Make time to see friends briefly, to meditate, to journal or to pray. Make a trip to the library instead of the mall. Remember an older friend or relative whose life has slowed down and who may be feeling lonely in the busyness of the holiday season. Schedule time just for you -- and for you and your significant other -- to be alone, to decompress, to relax in between the celebrations.

If you're feeling shopping and/or budget challenged. Besides skipping the mall and shopping online, you might also consider making simple gifts this year or agreeing with family to draw names instead of buying gifts for everyone in the family or making the decision as a family to give gifts only to the young children. You might decide to give your adult children family heirlooms as gifts this year. Or get creative in a new way and make a scrapbook or a video of family members' lives in pictures. That can feel more personal and loving than a store-bought gift. 

When I wasn't sure what to give my niece Maggie for her 5th birthday recently and also worried about the cost of shipping a gift all the way to Bangkok, I decided to make a music video of her life so far. made it easy. And my brother told me that the family was so moved, they passed a Kleenex box around the circle of their immediate family, Thai in-laws and family friend Nora who was visiting from the U.S. Later, Nora told me that of all the gifts Maggie received that day, the movie of her life was her favorite. Putting it together didn't cost a dime. And the time and effort it took to gather all the digital photos together was a true labor of love that warmed my heart as well.

If you're dreading a family dinner/donnybrook. Accept the fact that it's not in your power to transform a family holiday into a Hallmark event. Then look for ways to mitigate disasters. If alcohol fuels family fights, try serving non-alcoholic, but festive drinks, letting people know in advance that the holiday at your place will be alcohol-free with no BYOB as an experiment this year. Let some key family members know that you're hoping people can simply enjoy the holiday and being together without dredging up past feuds and that you won't be jumping in to referee this time around. Plan some distracting activities -- watching a favorite holiday movie together, playing games or taking an after-dinner walk together as distractions that might help to derail some of family conflicts.

 It may also help to give family members an escape route --- the freedom to make excuses (without any guilting or questioning from you or the rest of the family) to stay just a little while, visiting briefly and leaving before any of the conversation becomes heated. 

But if the day degenerates into hopeless squabbles, it may be the way at least some of your family likes to mark the holidays. Stand back. Take a deep breath. Take the dog out for a walk and enjoy the quiet. And next year perhaps you can plan to be a guest at some other family member's house -- and make a brief appearance, escaping in advance of the donnybrook.  Another tip: this year or next, spend one of the holidays with someone else's family.  It can be much more relaxing and enjoyable to be a guest and to be part of a whole different family dynamic -- just for a change.

If you're finding the celebration all work and no fun.  When you're the hostess, the holiday go-to person, the designated party planner, the holidays can, indeed, seem more work than fun. Whether you're organizing the festivities at home, at work or both, schedule a treat for yourself somewhere in the timeline. Plan an hour, an afternoon or even a spa day with a good friend during or right after the holidays. My friend Mary lives for Black Friday. I find the prospect of shopping on that day horrifying. But, somehow, when we do it together, it is an incredible pleasure -- and has become a tradition for us. Whether you take a brief holiday hiatus to relax or plan a day doing exactly what you want to do the day after a major event, you'll have something to anticipate that may go a long way toward alleviating some of the stress of the season

Monday, November 10, 2014

Oliver's Tale

He was tiny. He was different. He was intriguing.

I first caught a glimpse of him while taking a short break from signing copies of my book "Purr Therapy" at the Santa Clarita, CA Catoberfest celebration of cats and the cat rescue organization Forgotten Angels.

He was a little black kitten, significantly separated from the other Forgotten Angels adoptable kittens and cats. The organization, after all, considered him a long-shot for adoption.

   First glimpse: Playing in his litter box at Catoberfest in Santa Clarita, CA

He was black, not a popular color for rescue cats. But his differences from the others were much more significant than color. This little kitten had only three legs, a large hernia and a near tragic back story: he was thrown into a trash can, simply discarded, soon after birth. If not for a passerby who heard his cries coming from a curb-side trash can, he certainly would not have survived. 

Unable to imagine a greater evil than discarding a defenseless newborn kitten into the trash, rescue volunteers assumed that he was born without his right rear leg. But somewhat later, a veterinarian pointed out the bone protruding from the short stump and said that it looked like someone had cut off his leg in a senseless act of cruelty.

For someone with such a traumatic beginning, this little kitten -- named Herbie (the love bug) by rescuers -- was amazingly cheerful, outgoing and loving. He responded warmly to people, purring as soon as anyone looked at him, cuddling closely with anyone willing to hold him. I couldn't believe how this little animal loved people -- despite everything someone had done to him so early in life.


                  Playing with a Forgotten Angels volunteer at Catoberfest

I watched as he rolled and played joyously in his litter box, while the Forgotten Angels volunteer sitting by his cage kept trying to re-direct him to a toy filled little bed on the other side of the cage. "Playing in the litterbox!" she scolded. "You have enough strikes against you already, sweetheart! Can't you just sit nicely in your little bed and look pretty?"

But he dashed around, exuberant, full of life, showing off, spilling litter with every move. 

As I headed back to my book-signing area, I hoped and prayed that someone would adopt him before my next break.

But no one did. Plenty of people stopped to look at him and to read his heart-rending story posted atop his cage. But no one wanted a kitten who was crippled and who needed three surgeries in the near future.

I sent Bob an email about this captivating little cat. He wrote back that he felt haunted by the story of this poor little guy and wondered if we might think of offering him a forever home.

I set my phone down and started talking with people about "Purr Therapy" and listening to their stories of the cats they loved -- and the ones they had loved and lost. Dr. Tracy McFarland, my all time favorite vet who rescued our beloved, late Timmy and Gus when they were tiny kittens sixteen years ago and entrusted them to us, joined me at the signing, autographing copies of the book (which is dedicated to her) for many at Catoberfest who were patients and who considered Dr. Tracy by far the greater celebrity present.

"My husband and I are emailing each other about Herbie," I whispered. She smiled and put her arm around me. 

"He's a wonderful kitten, very, very special," she said. "And he couldn't go to a better home. Are you really going to take him home to Arizona with you?"

Bob and I discussed the logistics via email. I had to come back to Santa Clarita the next weekend for another Barnes and Noble signing. I had planned to fly by myself....but we took a deep collective breath and I changed my plans. Bob and I drove back four days later and, after the signing was finished, we traveled to the high desert town of Palmdale to pick up this new addition to our family.

He was with a bunch of other cats at a local PetSmart, snuggled with his little friend Kirby, a beautiful gray and white kitten who had become his special buddy in his foster home. Bob and I paused, torn, at the enclosure. Should we take them both? That would make five cats. It seemed to be tipping the balance into crazy cat collecting.

"Oh, my God, Kirby is so cute!" Bob said, looking through the glass. "But he's so beautiful and so perfect, someone will adopt him soon for sure. Poor little Herbie doesn't have the same chance...."

Vicki, a Forgotten Angels volunteer, looked a little tearful as she held our new kitten. "It's so hard to say goodbye to this one," she said. "He is such a love but we're so thrilled he has a home."

                         Saying "Goodbye" to Vicki -- and then off to Arizona!                        

We put Herbie in a carrier and took him to our car where a fully-equipped kennel with bed, food and water and a litter box, awaited him for the nine-hour journey.

The long car trip has never been such a pleasure. Though he cried briefly, the kitten soon relaxed and rejoiced, purring loudly and cuddling in my arms and then Bob's as we took turns driving. The miles flew by.

Somewhere before the Arizona border, Bob decided that Herbie was too close to Hammie, the name of our youngest adult cat. He likes to have a distinct name for each cat so that they will come (usually) when called. We decided to name this one Oliver or Ollie. 

Everything was set -- or so we thought. Previous kitten introductions have been easy, thanks to the sweetness of our alpha cat Gus, who has embraced every kitten coming into the house and mandated quick acceptance by the others. But Gus had died at age 16 this summer and our three surviving cats have spent the months since both grieving his loss and jockeying for position in the household. Bringing a handicapped kitten into the mix didn't improve anyone's mood. 

         Ollie is undaunted by his limitations - a missing leg and a large hernia

To our surprise, our testy young female cat SweetPea was the first to befriend Oliver after his obligatory several sequestered days, the mutual sniffing under the door and the growlings of various intensities. Ollie was delighted to have a friend, albeit one with definite mood swings. When she tired of his playing, she would bop him on the head. He would roll over, purring and simply wait for her irritation to pass.

                                                              SweetPea and Oliver

But Maggie and Hammie were less easily convinced that Oliver was a welcome addition to the family.

Maggie, weary of kittens and wanting to live in peace and quiet, took up residence in the linen closet, glaring out through a crack in the door. 

Hammie, our pampered and adored baby, had a more extreme reaction: hiding in dark corners, running from the kitten, wailing loudly when visitors paid more attention to Oliver than to him, refusing to let me touch him if I had just held the kitten, throwing up prodigiously all over my laptop computer, jumping up and ripping the Sunday New York Times from my hands, shredding the paper and nipping me. He started to limp (suspiciously similar to Oliver's gait), stopped eating and crawled under the bed for hours at a time. We rushed him to his vet who could find absolutely nothing wrong with him and no reason he should be limping, though she ran a battery of tests. We started calling the episode "Hammie's $455 Hissy Fit."

Then gradually, the tensions eased. Maggie napped on the bed with Ollie nearby. 

                                                            Maggie and Ollie

Hammie stopped growling and started to play. When I woke up in the middle of the night recently, I was stunned to see all four cats cuddled at the end of the bed -- and Hammie and Ollie were sleeping entwined with each other.

                                                Oliver and Hamish (Hammie)

Through it all, Ollie has adjusted joyfully to his new home, his wonderfully optimistic, easy-going temperament serving both him and us well. When he was rejected by another cat, he would simply back down and play by himself or seek cuddling from us. If you look at him, if you touch him, he purrs. He happily welcomes visitors to our home. And we wonder if we have another potential therapy cat in this sweet kitten who lives with such joy, exuberance and love.
                                             Helping Bob with his stretches

                                                  Such a loving kitten!
                                                 Secure in his forever home

However he grows up, he is ours and we are his. We'll manage his expensive surgeries to repair his large umbilical hernia and to remove the stump of his right rear leg with the exposed bone. We're weathering the high drama of cat introductions that seems to be winding down. And we have fallen hopelessly in love with a little kitten whose spirit could not be crushed by human cruelty.

Someone's trash has become our latest treasure.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

When Blessings Come Late

The thought came to me in the middle of a Barnes and Noble signing session for my book "Purr Therapy" recently: this time around is so different from the first time. Purr Therapy is my 15th book. My first "The Teenage Body Book" was published with a fair amount of hoopla in 1979.

How different it was back then. I took the good reviews, the awards, the television appearances as my due, as a stepping stone to greater success and, I hoped, to greater happiness as well. I saw this as a natural progression from my hard work with a bit of luck thrown in.

When such blessings come later in life, it's different. You're more in the moment. You savor these good times, perhaps greeting good fortune with surprise and, most important, in context with the other priorities and blessings in your life.

My current activities on behalf of Purr Therapy -- which have kept me away from blog writing and reading most of the past two months -- have underscored the differences of this latest blessing.

At my first Barnes and Noble signing, at the Valencia, CA store a few weeks ago, what made the day most memorable was not simply the fact that people showed up and bought my book. What mattered most, as I thought about it afterwards, was that two of the people whom I had known in the past and who represented some unresolved feelings in my life showed up so unexpectedly.

The first person I saw when I walked into the store was my former next door neighbor Lydie. We had had a cordial enough relationship as neighbors, yet sometimes I felt a barrier of quiet disapproval on her part as she watched me working long hours and spending very little time at home. But she was smiling now and gave me a warm hug. We talked about missing each other and about our shared love of cats. And I began to think that the disapproval I had sensed from her may actually have come from me  -- and my sadness and guilt that I had very little free time to enjoy my family and leisure in our former home. It was a revelation in the glow of Lydie's warm welcome.

                          My former boss Nora and me at Barnes and Noble signing

As we talked, I felt another arm around me and was stunned to see Nora, my former boss from UCLA Medical Center, who lives in Malibu and had driven a long way through what I knew was horrendous traffic, to attend this event. I hadn't been in touch with her lately. I didn't even know how she found out I would be there. But what mattered was that she was there. In recent years, I had found myself pulling away a bit from reminders of my five years working at UCLA  - grateful for the benefits, pained by the hardships -- and I hadn't kept in touch. But somehow she knew...and showed up. And I was genuinely happy to see her,  to remember and appreciate the good times we shared.

At the second signing, at the same Barnes and Noble store five days later, I was once again happy to discuss my book and watch the brisk sales continue, but what warmed my heart most was seeing two very special people: Ryan and Chloe.  Ryan, our friend and "surrogate son" since he was nine years old and Bob's third and most beloved Little Brother in the Big Brothers program, is now a 31-year-old psychotherapist. He has grown up to be a loving, compassionate man with a lively sense of humor. He was entering graduate school about the time I was closing my private practice. I gave him a lot of my psychology books as well as the couch from my office. My ending was his beginning. And it felt so good to hug him, to rejoice in his success and to share the happiness of this book with him.

                                   Ryan, from Little Brother to psychotherapist
       Former patient "Chloe" and me at another Barnes and Noble signing

Chloe, which is the pseudonym she chose to be called in Purr Therapy, is my longest term patient. I worked with her for nearly ten years, through devastating losses in her life and hopeful new beginnings. And I learned so much about courage and resilience and the power of faith from her as we worked together. To meet her again, after nearly five years, was a special joy. Seeing her with her husband and son, knowing how far she had traveled from those early times of grief and despair after her first husband's death, truly made my day. The festivities around my book were simply a bonus.

There have been lovely reviews and blog posts -- some from special blogging friends Dee Ready and Jeanie Croope -- which I've appreciated more than they may ever realize.

And, in the past few weeks, there have been loving communications from family members. My brother Mike, frantically busy with his career and young family in Bangkok, nonetheless finds time to track and celebrate Purr Therapy's best moments in highly variable Amazon rankings. My cousin Caron recently wrote to thank me for mentioning her and her husband Bud in the Acknowledgements: "The only thing we could have given you is love. Bud and I love both you and Bob. That's it. We love you." And my sister Tai, not generally given to effusiveness, nevertheless has called with a fervent "I'm so proud of you!" Their caring means so much this time around. It isn't the praise that so warms my spirits, but these unique and life-long relationships.

And at the annual Catoberfest event,  a celebration of cats and a fundraiser for pet rescue, I signed books with my favorite vet ever, Dr. Tracy McFarland, the Cat Doctor of Santa Clarita, to whom "Purr Therapy" is dedicated. She had rescued our beloved Timmy and Gus as tiny kittens and had taken wonderful care of all our cats over several decades. It was a joy to see her again and to celebrate the book, the cats, and the volunteers from Forgotten Angels Cat Rescue....

                           Dr. Tracy McFarland and me at Catoberfest book signing
                                          Photo: by Rebecca I. Bolam

And there was a very special little Forgotten Angel kitten there at Catoberfest who caught my eye: a tiny, crippled, impossibly sweet little kitten who, despite interventions from volunteers, insisted on playing and lounging joyfully in his litterbox throughout the event -- all while purring loudly. His traumatic start in life and what happened since will be the subject of my next blog post. But meeting him was a lasting lesson in the ability of animals to forgive and to love us flawed humans anyway.

Special Catoberfest Kitten

So my travels on behalf of my new book have brought unexpected blessings -- the blessings of friendships renewed, wonderful life stories unfolding and lessons in love from a frail little kitten.

Of course, I want "Purr Therapy" to do well. This book is my first memoir and it means a lot to me. I'm working hard to get the word out about it. But promoting the book at this time in my life feels less like a competition, less like professional survival, and more pure pleasure.

This time around, this bit of professional success and the attention that comes with it has felt more integrated into my life as a whole. I've been seeing the publication of this book and the publicity around it not as my due, not as a stepping stone to even greater glory but as a blessing -- and only one of many blessings in my life today. And I know now that happiness is not necessarily found in acclaim, but rather in warm hugs, in making a difference, in helping to ease the pain of another, in the love of family and friends and in cuddling a sweet kitten.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Land of Smiles -- and Many Holidays!

If you want to find a spirit of celebration all around you, Thailand is the place to be.

The Land of Smiles -- despite recent political unrest -- happily celebrates all holidays -- their own and those belonging to different cultures.

When Bob and I visited my brother Mike and his wife Jinjunta in Bangkok for Christmas and New Year's - 2006-2007 - we were amazed at the Christmas decorations and music all around us, some of the songs translated to Thai, some of the music played on Asian instruments giving the familiar tunes a whole different lilt. Although Thailand is largely Buddhist with a Muslim minority in the southern part of the country, Christmas spirit abounds there during our holiday season, even as they celebrate a cherished holiday of their own: their beloved King's birthday.

Another major holiday is the April Water Festival, as the always warm weather gets even hotter, where people happily throw water on each other as they celebrate the season -- right along with the Christian  Easter.

Now pictures from Mike and Jinjunta, joined by their children Maggie, 5, and Henry, 2, show that Halloween is also observed in Thailand. But it is Halloween with a Thai twist: instead of begging for candy from neighbors, kids fill a candy bag at home and take it to school, exchanging candy with their classmates, getting the experience of giving as well as taking.

       Maggie's kindergarten class all ready for Halloween Thai-style

                               Maggie, left, exchanges candy with a classmate

This is a land that cherishes its own traditions and takes pride in the fact that it was never a Western colony. Nevertheless, Thailand embraces other cultures' causes for celebration with such endearing enthusiasm, one can't help but smile!

                              Mike, Henry, Maggie, Jinjuta: Happy Halloween!

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Message From The Heart

While reading the Sunday New York Times yesterday, I came upon an article that make me sit up, take  notice....and remember.

It was an opinion piece by Martha Weinman Lear, author of the books "Heartsounds" and "Echoes of Heartsounds". Her books had been about her late husband's series of heart attacks before the final one that took his life. This article was about her own heart attack.

Like many women, she did not have the classic chest-clutching pain. Instead, she felt suddenly ill with a fluttering in the chest, chills, vomiting and diarrhea. She called her doctor immediately.

It was the diarrhea that threw him off and made him decide that she had "a stomach bug."

But still he scheduled her for an EKG the next morning. What that test revealed was that she had had a heart attack. Not a mild one nor a massive one. But a substantial one. She was admitted to the hospital immediately.

Lear was lucky -- lucky that the heart attack was not massive, lucky that she had a physician willing to run a cardiac test. In the not so distant past, research on women's cardiac problems was scant and the fact that women often exhibit quite different symptoms was not recognized until quite recently. Traditionally, men showing symptoms of a heart attack have been treated appropriately and aggressively while women reporting the same symptoms have often received a psychiatric diagnosis.

Lear reported that this gender bias in diagnosis only began to change in 2001 after a study from the U.S. Institute of Medicine confirmed significant gender bias in all areas of medical research. Still, she says, women make up only 24 percent of participants in heart-related studies. But there is hope. She reported that only a few days ago, the National Institutes of Health announced that it will give grants totaling $10.1 million for scientists to include more women in clinical trials.

So there is progress. Now we need to get past lack of information and outright denial on a personal level.

And I know a lot about that, reliving my own as the memories came back.

It was a bright late August Saturday in 2003. I woke up feeling good and ready for a busy day. I had cancelled my Saturday patients at my private psychotherapy practice that day because of a schedule conflict with one of my other two jobs -- this one the admissions representative job for Northwestern University. I was due at a picnic at a lovely park in Santa Monica -- about 40 miles from my home -- honoring the entering freshman from the Southern California area. Several alums would also be attending to give information and encouragement to the enrolling students and their parents. And I was to host the event and furnish the food -- heaping platters of deli sandwiches I would pick up locally and transport to the park.

But before hitting the deli, I decided to go to my private practice office to finish up some paperwork. There was plenty of time. I sat down at my desk, pulled out an insurance company file and started writing. Suddenly, I went from feeling fine to feeling terrible.

It happened in an instant. I felt dizzy, a fluttering in my chest and broke out in a cold sweat. I fell to the floor and passed out. When I came to, I felt extreme nausea and overwhelming fatigue. I crawled on my hands and knees to the adjacent private bathroom in my office and, for the next half hour, alternated between bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.

Then most of the symptoms passed except the weakness and fatigue. I crawled from the bathroom to the couch and lay there considering my options. Going to the emergency room was not among them. In my tunnel vision, all I could think about was the picnic. I had to go. I had to get the food there. It was my job. People were depending on me. It never occurred to me to call one of the alums and ask him to come up to Santa Clarita and pick up the pre-paid for food at the deli and to send my regrets. My only options, as I lay there considering them, were to do it all myself or ask my husband Bob for help. I realized, at last, that I couldn't, shouldn't, drive. I picked up the phone and called Bob.

When he arrived, looking concerned, I minimized my symptoms. "It was probably a touch of food poisoning or something," I said, ignoring the fact that he and I had eaten the same dinner the night before and the same breakfast that morning and he had no symptoms whatsoever. "I'll be fine. I just need you to do the driving this morning."

So we picked up the sandwiches and transported them to the park. Steve, then head of the alum volunteer group, looked at me closely as he took the sandwich platters from Bob. "Are you okay?" he asked, putting a hand on my arm. I was still feeling so weak and fatigued, I could barely stand.

"I'm a little under the weather today," I said, averting my face lest he see the extent of my distress. "Could you please host this event today? Do you mind? I think I need to go home."

"Of course," Steve said, putting an arm around me. "I wish you had called me before. I would have taken a swing up your way to pick up the food so you wouldn't have to come all this way. I'll handle this. You take care of yourself."

But I didn't. Slumped in the front seat on our drive back home, I got a call on my cell phone from a friend who happened to be a doctor. I told him about my symptoms and he started yelling "Why aren't you in the emergency room??? Go to the emergency room NOW!!!" I nodded and hug up.  Bob looked at me curiously.

"What was that all about?"

I sighed. "Oh, know, he's so excitable. He thinks I should go to the emergency room."

"If he thinks so, you should. The Kaiser hospital is two off-ramps away. Let's stop by there and just be sure this isn't anything serious."

I shrugged. "They'll just tell me I have the flu or food poisoning and I'd feel silly. Let's just go home. I want to sleep this off."

So I did. And I was lucky: I woke up. Feeling better.

But Larry had called every emergency room in the area to see if I was there. He was frantic over my lack of interest in getting tested and treated. He fumed at me for a long time. But it took me three years to go for a cardiac exam because, well, I was so busy. I didn't get those cardiac tests until 2006 when I was entering a medically supervised weight loss program at UCLA Medical Center. It was then that my cardiac problems became real to me and that I knew the terrible risk I had taken three years before when my fatigue and denial had kept me from seeking immediate help.

My subsequent reading about the differing symptoms for women's heart attacks, most recently Martha Weinman Lear's New York Times article, has been instructive and alarming and has made me want to spread the word.

If you have any of the following symptoms, particularly in combination, seek medical help immediately: sudden neck, shoulder or back pain, chills, cold sweat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pressure in the chest area.

Please don't do what I did.

My tunnel vision about work obligations, my habitual busyness, my skewed priorities and my denial that anything serious was wrong could have killed me on that sunny Saturday eleven years ago.

I'm profoundly grateful to have lived to tell this cautionary tale.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Daily Gratitude

It was an ordinary day, a quick phone call to my cousin Caron recently to wish her a happy birthday, I asked her how she was planning to celebrate turning 74.

I hesitated slightly as I asked the question. Caron has grown frail the past few years, suffering from COPD and tethered to oxygen 24 hours a day. Her loving husband Bud has taken over all the household tasks and cares for her full-time.

Caron laughed quietly. "You know, the best celebration I can imagine is just having one more ordinary day," she replied. "I'm grateful for every day of my life. Every day is a celebration!"

Her words made me think of a conversation I had with Aunt Molly a little over a decade ago. It was near the end of her life. And she was telling me about a recent visit to her doctor when he had expressed concern about her heart. He had handed her his stethoscope, asking her to listen to the off-rhythm heartbeats. Instead of alarm, what she felt was wonder.

"It seemed miraculous to me, as imperfect as the rhythm might have been," she said. "I thought that my heart has been beating for 87 years -- since I was in my mother's womb -- and it has never stopped, never been a problem up to now. I said a quiet thanks to my heart for carrying on so well for so long. And if it's getting tired, if it needs to stop sooner rather than later, so be it. I'm grateful for every heartbeat, for every moment of every day that may be left."

The memory of Aunt Molly and the experience of talking with Caron recently make me stop and think about how casually we accept the days given to us.

So many spend days complaining that life isn't as perfect as they had hoped it would be. Whether it's complaining about the weather, about the food at the local diner, about neighbors they have come to know and not like, about the vicissitudes of daily life, so many of us get caught up in the small stuff and lose sight of the big picture -- that we're alive, in reasonable health, living comfortably in a world filled with wonders.

Some spend days watching t.v. or playing cards "to kill the time", to fill the empty hours of each day, letting opportunities to help others, to express love, to explore their own unique creative gifts slip away.

Some of us count the days until a vacation, a special event,  or some other happy occasion, mentally skipping over the time in between -- time that may end up being as eventful or meaningful as the long-anticipated occasion.

And some of us put off positive changes until tomorrow, always assuming that tomorrow will be soon enough, that tomorrow will, in fact, come.

I've made a promise to myself not to wait until a life-threatening or life-limiting disorder strikes to begin to treasure all of my days. Each day - regular, unremarkable days as well as the days marking memorable occasions -- is a gift. It is a chance to look around and see the world in a new way. It is a chance to accept what is and embrace whatever life brings with joy -- living with gratitude instead of self-pity, wonder instead of fear.

Each day is, indeed, worth celebrating.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Parents and Adult Children: Clashing Expectations

Carol smiled faintly when I encountered her at the supermarket the other day and then sighed as we sorted through the late season peaches on display.

"I hear distress," I said quietly.

She sighed again. "I just feel so disappointed about my son. We pulled up roots and moved all the way here to be close to him and we never see him and his wife. Well, maybe once a month we'll have dinner. This isn't what I envisioned. We gave up friends and familiar places to move here and...well, you'd just think..."

"Did your son ask you to move here?"

She smiled ruefully. "No," she said. "It was our decision...well, really mine. I guess I had this fantasy of being close again. But he and his wife have their own life and that doesn't include us very often. I'd like to be part of that life -- to see the grandchildren for fun, not just babysitting them while they're sleeping. I wish we were included in some of the birthday parties and celebrations. I don't want to be a pain in the neck. I just would like to see them more. Moving here, I expected that we would..."

Listening to accounts from other parents of grown children and from adult children themselves, it's evident that there are many different clashing expectations causing disappointment and disagreements between the generations.

There are many parents like Carol whose adult children are doing well in life but who are just not as engaged with their parents as the parents might like.

And there are parents who listen in dismay as adult children express disappointment in them.

There are adult children who expect to be rescued financially, over and over again. There are adult children who expect their parents to babysit on demand, putting their own preferences and plans on hold. There are some who expect that their parents will enshrine their past, staying in the family home and keeping their high school/childhood treasures -- even their childhood rooms -- safe, untouched and awaiting visits.

And there are some adult children who are disappointed that their active Baby Boomer parents are so unlike the grandparents that they themselves had when growing up.

"It's a whole different thing with these Boomer grandparents," one young mother of a a toddler told me recently. "They're so busy doing their thing that they're not your typical grandparents. My grandma and my Nana both baked cookies and read me stories and couldn't get enough time with me. I feel I have to make an appointment with my Mom for her to spend time with Emma. She just doesn't seem into being an traditional Grandma. "

The distress that both generations can feel over expectations continually unmet or experienced as unreasonable demands can put an emotional wedge between parent and adult child that can cause pain that persists long past the conflicted relationships.

My friend Susan, who recently joined a support group for cardiac surgery patients, called me the other day to tell me about a woman in the group who talked continually about how much her parents had disappointed her throughout her life.  The woman, she told me, is 84 years old and her parents have been gone for many years. Only the sting of unmet expectations survives.

One elderly and ailing man contacted his lawyer recently to see about disinheriting his three children. The lawyer inquired about their transgressions. "They're all too busy living their own lives to be part of this family anymore," he said. "Yes, they call and come over once a week or so. They show up for major holidays. But they're all living away from home and getting into relationships that take up so much of their time and it's not at all what I had hoped when they were growing up..."

The lawyer looked at his distressed client and then closed the file. "I want you to think about this more," he said. "And I want you to consider that all of our children disappoint us in some ways. And we disappoint them, too. I imagine that your children might be disappointed that you aren't more supportive of them building lives of their own or getting involved in love relationships. It goes both ways."

What can you do if you find yourself disappointed in an adult child -- or your son or daughter is expressing disappointment in you?

Do a reality check. How reasonable -- or not -- are the expectations that you harbor? Or that they have of you?

 "I think both sides here are being a little unreasonable," Carol told me when we sat down for coffee after grocery shopping. "My son is treating us like unpaid, on-demand babysitters and I'm expecting that we'll be part of every family celebration they have, forgetting that some things they like to keep within their immediate little nuclear family. I guess that my own expectations are the only ones I can truly change. I can choose to take a step back, even though a part of me really doesn't want to do that. I think it would help the relationship with my son and daughter-in-law."

Another close friend recently ended a long unhappy marriage, a decision that sent their 37-year-old daughter into a paroxysm of anger, grief and disappointment that "my parents didn't try harder to keep things together, especially now that  I have two little ones who loved visiting their grandparents at the home where I grew up. All of that is changing now. And I think it's all just really selfish and unnecessary."

Her father disagrees. "My ex-wife and I tried very hard to be the best parents we could be," he said. "We stayed together many years after the marriage was emotionally over to see our son and daughter securely into adulthood. Now both of us are ready to have a last chance at happiness, whatever form that takes as we venture out on our own.  There aren't other people involved. We still love and want to spend time with the kids and grandkids. We just don't want to live together any more. I don't think that's unreasonable. At the same time, I'm not saying this split isn't painful for us and our family. But it's pain we need to work through together."                                                                  

When possible, work toward compromise.  You might express your desire to see your grandchild conscious, not just when sleeping or to participate in an occasional family celebration while respecting the need of your adult child's family to have time alone together.

It doesn't have to be an emotional confrontation -- just a simple request: "I'm happy to babysit the grandkids whenever we can arrange to do that, but I'd also like to see them awake and enjoy a get-together with them on a regular basis. How can we do that without interfering with their schedule and yours?"

This shows respect for their needs while setting boundaries for you -- sending the message that you may not always be available to babysit.

And changes that have your adult children already mourning a piece of their past are often a bit less painful if the kids have some voice in the matter.

If you're looking to move on and move out of a long-time home, compromise may mean giving your adult children the option of claiming their childhood treasures before you pitch them. "My mother threw away all my yearbooks, prom pictures and other treasures of my growing up years when my parents moved to their dream home after my brother and I finished college," my friend Pat told me, without rancor, not long ago. "I'm not a collector nor am I especially sentimental about high school. Still, it would have been nice to have had the option of being asked if I would like to have them. I have to admit I was a little disappointed when Mom informed me that these all went into the trash."

With a late life divorce, while the decision to split is very much your own, working out details involving children and grandchildren together may ease tensions with adult children who feel blindsided and aghast at the demise of a long marriage. "Our grandchildren, who are too young to understand what divorce is, seem to be doing well and are having more grandparent time because my ex-wife and I often see them separately as well as together at family celebrations," my friend told me recently. "And our daughter is starting to relax and to realize that we're still her parents and still her children's grandparents. That love never changes."

Begin to let go of your guilt and your hurt. Whether you are an adult child or the parent of an adult child, moving on with your life is not a betrayal of those you love nor is your child's independence or different lifestyle or clashing concepts of what it means to be family a betrayal of you. We all do the best we can at the time, whether we're trying to balance the needs of a young, growing family with the needs of aging parents or whether we're aging parents feeling the pain of angry accusations of not doing enough or facing a sense of exclusion from a busy adult child's life.

Friends and co-workers often bend my sister Tai's ear with their complaints about parents who weren't -- or aren't -- loving enough or young adult children who are unexpectedly challenging -- knowing that Tai grew up in a family plagued with alcoholism and abuse. But she tends to have little patience with those who get mired down by family of origin pain and disappointments. "I guess I tend to be blunt," she told me recently. "I usually say something like 'Put on your big girl pants and move on down the road. Grow up. Get over it. We all did the best we could at the time. Parents usually do the best they can for their children, even if it feels woefully inadequate.'"

Coming to terms with unmet expectations is not a matter of saying that certain actions or expectations weren't hurtful.

It's a matter of learning to live with the pain that is inevitable when loving but fallible people share their lives.

It's a matter of giving yourself a chance to let go of the pain, often little by little, and get on with your life and grow in new ways, finding wisdom and insights in both painful and rewarding life experiences.

Sometimes this growth through pain means doing what you consider to be the right thing, whether or not you feel your adult children (or your parents) deserve it. This can mean keeping in touch, even from a healthy distance. It can mean expressing love, even though you might not like your parent or your child at that moment.

There is no instant cure for the pain of clashing expectations between parents and their adult children. But there is a way to start the healing process. Instead of yearning for what could be or what might have been, take those first tentative steps toward making peace with what is.

Friday, August 8, 2014

In Honor of World Cat Day....

World Cat Day???

I had no idea that there was such a day until my friend Tim Schellhardt, a veteran journalist who keeps up on all the news as it is breaking, sent me a link this morning saying that newspapers around the world are featuring cats on their front pages because today is, indeed, World Cat Day.

In honor of this global celebration of everything feline, I'd like to share a short video I made recently to help promote my upcoming book PURR THERAPY:WHAT TIMMY AND MARINA TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE, LOVE AND LOSS, which will be published by HCI Books on October 7.

The book is a memoir about my years as a psychotherapist, about the unexpected blessings we find in life and, most of all, about the two cats -- Timmy and Marina -- who worked with me from time to time in my private psychotherapy practice to comfort and calm patients who asked for their help. These two extraordinary cats taught me important and lasting lessons along the way, leaving a legacy of love.

Both Timmy and Marina died unexpectedly and tragically young, like angels lent for just a brief time. As you will see, my three surviving cats have their moments of being wonderfully therapeutic -- or not -- at home. And Hammie may even have potential as a real therapy cat.

Here's a sneak peak at the video introducing the cats of PURR THERAPY.

Happy World Cat Day!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rainforest Reveries

As I look back wistfully to that special week, it seems a very long time ago. But it  has been only a month and a half since we were there.

It was a long-time dream, a trip two years in the planning: we would go to Hilo, Hawaii to visit my dear friend Jeanne Nishida Yagi and her husband Jimmy Yagi. And, while there, we decided, just this once, to rent a home nearby. It was a beautiful cabin on a ridge, in the middle of an island rainforest, with huge waterfalls at the back of the property.

I had seen the house years ago in Architectural Digest. It was built as a vacation retreat by a gay architect from San Francisco who died before having a chance to enjoy it. A local businessman bought it and keeps it as a vacation rental and special event venue called The Falls at Reed's Island. It is booked months, years in advance. (While we were there, the owner told us that he had just had to tell someone trying to reserve Christmas week 2015 that is was already booked.) We saved considerable money by making our reservations two years ago. And all the time since, we had been anticipating, dreaming of our stay there.

We could never have imagined, even looking at the beautiful pictures on the website, just how wonderful it would be: the steady and comforting sounds of water -- the falls, the river, the rain -- throughout the house and the living sounds of the rainforest -- birds by day, singing frogs by night. There were the mists and rainbows and lush tropical vegetation, flowers growing wild.

Bob meditating in the back yard of The Falls

View from the kitchen window

With the soothing sights and sounds, my thoughts settled into reverie...    

I thought about the joy of new experiences -- being in a place so new, so different, so unfamiliar, yet comforting and the wonder of beauty all around us, so vivid, from every window. Every glimpse outside was a delight and a revelation.

I thought about how we so often take for granted and stop seeing the beauty most familiar to us so quickly.... and wondered what delights I might be overlooking at home. I made a vow to reconnect with the unique beauty awaiting us at home  -- the startling clarity of a desert sky at night, the smell of the desert after a monsoon rain, the colors of blooming palo verde in the spring and the sweet, unexpected smell of citrus blossoms in the air.

I thought with love and a bit of worry about our ailing cat Gus -- how he would love the smells and sounds of the rainforest, how he blessed our lives every day, how I wanted to soothe and comfort him all the remaining days of his life, never realizing that we would have only a week together between our return and his death. But there in the rainforest, I felt a loving connection to Gus as I was surrounded by forces of nature and quietly accepted the fact that sooner rather than later, we would lose this beloved animal but treasure having known him forever.

I thought that, for all the beauty of this wondrous place, the greatest joy of this trip was spending time with my friend Jeanne and her family.

I thought about the meaning of long friendships in our lives. Jeanne and I have been friends since our early days of college. At that time, we were united in being geographically unusual: she, a native of Hilo, Hawaii and I hailing from Los Angeles, were among the few warm weather natives traveling to Northwestern's campus north of Chicago. A year ahead of Jeanne, I was matched with her as a Big Sister to ease her transition on campus. We clicked and have been dear friends since.

We braved the Great Storm of '67 together -- venturing out for ice cream with the conditions still near white-out, spending a Christmas together later that year in my graduate student apartment complete with Christmas tree and cookies Jeanne baked and a holiday dinner we cooked together. There were letters and phone calls and visits in our early career years, particularly after Jeanne returned to Hawaii after working for the Peace Corps in Saipan and Washington, D.C.  We battled weight gains and celebrated periods of svelteness and mourned the loss of several dear friends together. She was at my side in 1977 when I married Bob and I was delighted when she married Jimmy in 1980.

It was -- and is -- a marriage made in heaven. She is an avid basketball fan, he a well-regarded basketball coach with an international reputation. His first wife Carol, a dear friend of Jeanne's, died of cancer in the late Seventies and Jeanne and Jimmy fell in love while sharing their grief and loving memories of Carol. They spent their honeymoon at a basketball camp in Colorado. This is a partnership that was meant to be. "We make a great team," Jimmy said smiling fondly at his wife during our visit.

                                                  Jeanne and Jimmy Yagi

They have both had health challenges in the past year, but have come through with the support of a loving extended family and each other.

                                Sunday brunch with Jeanne (center) and family

It was wonderful to see the love and humor and generosity of spirit abound -- even more beautiful, more soothing, than the sights and sounds of the rainforest.

                                    We decided to make visits a new tradition.

"Please make this a tradition at least once a year," Jeanne said quietly before we left and again in an email. "It doesn't have to cost you any more than airfare. Stay with us next time. Use our second car."

The important thing, we agreed, was having time, more time together, time to talk, time to enjoy the friendship that first blossomed in our teens and that has thrived into our golden years.

Waterfalls are gorgeous, but nothing is more glorious than joy and love in the eyes of a dear friend.