Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hindsight Advice to the Next Generation

"I don't want my kids to follow in my footsteps, to do what I did!"

His vehemence came as a surprise when I opened the email from a dear, long-time friend with two college-age daughters.

My first thought was that his daughters would do well to emulate their Dad.

I've known him since he was a twentysomething just starting out in New York publishing and quickly making a name for himself with his combination of insight, kindness, brilliance, hard work and decency.

But he is adamantly warning his daughters away from the same path -- encouraging them to take summer jobs in financial services, corporate public relations -- anything but journalism, book publishing and other print media. "I tell them that they have a choice: to work hard and make good money in business or to work just as hard and make practically nothing in publishing. I don't want them to have the hardships and the uncertainty, especially with the changing nature of the publishing business these days," he wrote. "I want them to have good lives with financial stability and the freedom to pursue all their creative interests on the side."

I could see his point. If I had children, I might be inclined to urge them to explore careers that they could enjoy and, at the same time, have bright employment and financial prospects. Would I have listened if my parents had urged me in a similar direction? Probably not.

I'm the aging poster child for doing what you love in work where money is unpredictable. I have been an actress, a writer and a psychotherapist.  All hold the potential for good earnings, with hard work and a large -- very large -- portion of luck. Acting, in particular, is an iffy bet in terms of financial security with so much more than talent involved in getting a coveted big break. And even though writing and psychotherapy are more accessible and less arbitrary than show business, financial bonanzas can be elusive. I have written 15 books for major New York publishers. Only one so far has earned decent money -- and that has been over a period spanning more than 30 years. I optimistically started a psychotherapy private practice -- after the investment of tens of thousands of dollars in advanced degrees in midlife -- and found, with the dominance of managed care, my earnings to be steady but modest.

A college friend Kandace, now deceased, also had a journalism degree followed by a midlife switch to psychotherapy. "What is it about us?" she asked over lunch one day. "Why do we gravitate to these various careers where it's so hard to make a living? Do we have a hidden poverty wish?"

One wonders. Perhaps it's a matter of some people putting more value on financial security while others value the experience of following a dream. And one wonders how young people hear these cautionary tales and fervent advice. Do they hear them with the puzzlement evident on Benjamin's face in "The Graduate" when a family friend urged him to consider a career in "Plastics." Or do they take this advice more to heart than previous generations at a time when student loans are so overwhelming and full-time jobs with good salaries and benefits are so hard to come by?

And, for a young person with creative passions, is it possible to have a happy, satisfying life with these pursuits relegated to the sidelines? Or, in the long run, is the pleasure of following one's dreams worth the financial risks? Does it make sense to pursue high-paying jobs, even if the passion is not there? Is following one's low-paying passions always a mistake?

How have you advised your growing or grown children? How have they found a satisfying balance in their lives? More to the point: what choices have you made in life that you hope your children don't make ?

Parental advice can make more of an impression on a young person than many of us imagined -- either as put-upon youth or as concerned parents.

I remember my own parents having their own urgent career advice for us -- advice we heard with half-closed eyes and long suffering attitudes.

Father urged my brother Michael to become a medical doctor, both to avoid being drafted for Vietnam service and to have lifelong security. He himself had aspired to a medical career after experiencing the disappointments of engineering work in a corporate setting but didn't feel he could start over. He wanted Michael to get his career off to a great start. Mike shrugged off the advice, setting his sights on becoming a college math professor and arguing that draft avoidance was an insufficient reason to choose a career in medicine.

 Mother advised my sister Tai, who showed great skill and compassion when family members were ill, to become a nurse. Tai rolled her eyes and insisted that her passion was dance.

Both of my parents rushed to implore me to become a writer which, only in comparison with my other passion, acting, seemed like a more reasonable bet.

It took combat in Vietnam and the passage of time to move Michael in the direction of medicine, in his own time and for his own reasons. It took even more time for Tai to see the wisdom of a career in nursing -- a goal she began to pursue in earnest after life-saving brain surgery, a marriage on the rocks and a toddler daughter to support. I enjoyed five years of doing both writing and acting in my twenties until I became increasingly aware of too many fifty-something actors and actresses who were so talented, so deserving of fame and fortune, who lacked only luck. They were still waiting on tables or driving cabs while hoping against hope for a big break. Writing, while competitive, didn't seem as
arbitrary. If you had talent and a good work ethic, you had a chance. Success didn't hinge on your looks -- at least then. In time, we all became converts to our parents' point of view -- even if our parents didn't live to see Tai's epiphany.

And yet there are young people who follow their dreams and make them happen. My friend Tim has four children -- three of them in the entertainment field. Laura is an award-winning playwright and college professor; Mary Kate is a film and t.v. actress; Stephen is a musical theatre actor/singer who works non-stop. His fourth child, Eliza, is an elementary school teacher. All work steadily and love what they do. None are likely to experience financial windfalls. But they're content.

These are strange times for those of us in midlife and beyond -- a time in life when we look back with longing or amusement or regret at roads taken or not taken. And we want to spare those we love who come after us from some of the rough patches along the way. And so we warn them away from certain career fields or behaviors or relationships without being sure that they've heard us. Then we cross our fingers and hope for the best.

But we know, as our parents did before us, that young people make their own lives, their own success and failure, their own happiness and regrets -- and we can only watch and cheer them on and comfort them along the way.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Gentle End for a Lovely Cat

My beloved cat Gus died today at the age of 16.

It shouldn't have been a surprise, but it seems that death so often catches us somewhat by surprise.

Gus had been frail this past year, losing weight and strength. His weight loss accelerated by April and I began to worry about leaving him for a long-planned trip to Hawaii to visit my dear friend Jeanne who has been ill. A vet at a nearby clinic was reassuring. "His lab work is fine," she said. "His kidneys are in great shape. He doesn't have diabetes. He's just old. Oh, it's possible that he could have intestinal cancer, but it's very costly to diagnose and would be hard to treat successfully at his age.  Try some of this special food and see how he does. I'm sure it will be fine to leave him."

So we left, with our neighbor Kelly, who has a small pet-sitting business, minding our cats. Her emails were upbeat, but concerned: Gus was eating enthusiastically, but was still losing weight. I asked her about gastrointestinal problems. Yes. But manageable. She fought hard to keep him healthy, to keep him alive, while we were gone -- with massages and hand feeding and cuddling and daily encouragement. And we were thrilled when he met us at the door when we returned late last  Wednesday.

But his appearance was a shock: his weight loss had gone into overdrive and his fur hung like an oversized coat on a body defined by prominent bones. He was ravenously hungry but his system could no longer process food. He had projectile diarrhea. As the week went on, he stopped grooming himself and, quite uncharacteristically, was smelly and unkempt. A lifelong model of calm with an even temper and loving nature, he was suddenly cranky and whined constantly. His weight had plummeted from 18 pounds last year to a fraction over five pounds.

But he still purred whenever I touched him, still melted into my arms when I picked him up, still took my hand in his paws and rubbed it all over his face  -- things he has done since we adopted him and his brother Timmy as seven week old kittens back in 1998.

He was still in so many ways himself. When would we know to let go?

Gus (r) and Timmy cuddle up to Bob in 1998

Loving brothers Timmy and Gus in 1998

Loving companions Hammie and Gus 2014

Gus, Hammie, Maggie and Sweet Pea 2014

Shockingly thin: Gus in June 2014

He would brighten, then decline in an endless loop over the next few days.  But I could see a steadier decline yesterday, watching him struggle to walk and to sit and to lie down, tottering on uncertain limbs. And then there was last night: while Gus usually preferred to start his nights on the living room couch, I looked over to the corner of the bedroom last night as I was turning in and saw him curled up in the little bed he had had since kittenhood. And I said a quiet prayer that he would pass away quietly and peacefully in that little bed.

                                      Gus settling in for his last night - June 17, 2014

But at 2 a.m., I was suddenly awakened by the sound of very loud purring beside me. I could hear it through sleep and the ear plugs I often wear if Bob is snoring. I was astonished to see Gus standing beside me, purring and rubbing his face against mine. Then he settled on my chest, still purring, his paws embracing me. Every time I would drift off to sleep, he would rub or touch my face, seeming to beg "Stay with me." I had a sense that he was saying a very personal, very loving "Goodbye" with the last of his strength. As the night went on, there was another round of dashes to the cat box with explosive diarrhea, crying,  wincing with pain when I touched his stomach.  Whimpering, he cuddled close and I knew it was time.

Bob called the veterinary clinic before dawn and we set off with Gus several hours later, choking back the pain behind our ordinary conversation, reassuring Gus who lay moaning in his carrier. I longed for our former vet in California from whom we had adopted Gus and Timmy, someone who knew him and would understand the magnitude of this loss that loomed before us.

But at this seemingly impersonal clinic, they did understand, creating a peaceful, supportive, caring environment, letting us have time to express our love to Gus before and after his sedation and the ultimate heart-stopping injection and to linger afterwards to caress him and to cry over this wonderful animal companion who had meant so much to us over the years. He was the only cat we had who had known every one of our other cats in our 32 year adventure in sharing our lives with a series of unique and loving cats. Gus also truly raised our current generation -- Maggie, 7, Sweet Pea,4, and Hammie, 2 -- from kittenhood. He was the cat who always purred, loved to be held and was invariably sweet and caring in the worst of times.

As we stood there today, stroking and holding Gus as his life ebbed away, we talked wistfully of the possibility of an afterlife, of a rainbow bridge where we might -- despite all of our religious doubts -- meet again with our beloved Gus, with Timmy and Freddie and Marina. We imagined how happy he would be to see his littermate Timmy, dead seven years and one month to the day. We hoped. We dreamed. And we said "Goodbye": Godspeed, sweet Gus. May you discard your elderly, ill body like an old coat and soar into a new life of unending love and adventure.

"I hope," Bob said, stroking his still warm body. "I hope if there is such a thing as reincarnation, that Gus will have another life as the highest order being possible."

He paused and thought about it.

"Maybe this was the highest order," he said. "Maybe cats and dogs are closer to perfection than we are."

I can't help but think that may be so -- at least in Gus' case. He was perfect: perfectly loving, perfectly  wonderful, perfectly Gus. We'll love and miss him forever.